The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
(Thanks to everyone who shared this series on Reddit, Twitter and FB.)
Day Four: The Set Up.
Great writers can do anything, of course. But generally speaking, there seems to be a principle in fiction about “set ups”: when readers begin reading your short story or novel, they expect the basic premises of the tale to be laid out fairly quickly. Just like with baking, there is a point where you have to put the story in the oven and let it rise on its own: you can’t really go back in and add something major.
If all the characters are vampires, for instance, we probably (probably) need to know this before the book’s final chapter.
There is a point where story seems, by the reader, to have been set up. Perhaps this point is reached in the first quarter of a novel — I don’t know. The exact moment doesn’t matter. And it’s not that, at the end of the set up, each of the story’s mysteries have been resolved, explained, no, not at all — but rather that their specific existences have been hinted at. It’s not that no surprises will come after this point — the reverse, in fact — but rather that the parameters of those surprises have been sketched out.
By the end of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, for instance, we (at the very least) know:
- The present day Nick (the narrator) has experienced something awful, wants to tell us how it happened. He also lets us know that we should probably see Gatsby as the best, most admirable part of that tale.
- At the start of this story, the past Nick (the protagonist) is in New York to become a bond trader.
- He is unsatisfied with his life, and looks upon himself wryly and pityingly.
- He has met at a party Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, all of whom he finds engaging, attractive, and morally dubious.
- He has learned Tom is having an affair — this “off screen” conversation will lead us shortly to meet the other group of significant characters, Tom’s mistress and her husband.
- His wealthy next-door neighbour is a man called Gatsby who throws parties, and there is something strange about Daisy’s reaction to the name.
- After the party, he goes home, and sees Gatsby standing alone, arms upraised, staring off into the night — he seems a mysterious spiritual, enigmatic figure.
That’s a lot of information for one chapter. Almost every major character has been introduced, and the stress lines of the plot — Gatsby’s longing, Daisy’s unhappiness, Tom’s ruthlessness — are already in motion. Plus, the general themes of money, corruption, memory, ambition, everyday morality opposing vitality / sensitivity, hope and romance — are all woven into those early pages. Wow.
Such concision and directness, sadly, can stumble into self-parody, seeming less like a rapid entry into a world and more like a writer ticking off a series of genre boxes.
Okay. This is very funny, and it shows how the principle can go wrong.
However, when a rapid set up is done well, it just seems awesome. The story presents itself to the reader’s eye not as a bunch of text, or a character study, or a general splodge of pretty prose, but as a tale, as something wholly formed and clear.
Here, not for the first time on this blog, is the amazing opening of Malamud’s short story, “The Magic Barrel”:
Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
In just three sentences, we have:
- The setting and the story’s “interests” (religion, loneliness, marriage etc).
- The protagonist and his overall ambition (to get a congregation).
- His specific goal for the story (get married).
- The problem blocking him from achieving that goal (he doesn’t know anyone).
- The ticking clock which means he has to move fast (he will be ordained in June).
- The perhaps unusual tactic he has chosen to get around his problem (a marriage broker).
- A vague hint that something strange is bothering him about the situation (“two tormented days”).
It’s remarkable, a virtuoso feat. Every time I teach this story, I learn something new.
So. That’s the idea: a story has a set up period, generally speaking, where the key parameters are defined.
Today’s exercise is simple: Write a three or four sentence introduction to a story, and include all of the seven elements above (setting, protagonist, clock etc…). This is the opening of the tale, the first words the reader will see.
Those three or four sentences should introduce your reader all seven of the above elements, just like Malamud does in “The Magic Barrel.”
Have fun! I’m looking forward to reading your responses.