Stefanie Freele, fiction editor of the Los Angeles Review and a 2010-11 Healdsburg Literary Laureate, led a dynamic workshop at our Writer's Forum on beginning a story "in medias res"--in the middle of things. Think of a mystery novel, she said, which rarely starts with a description of place. Rather, it begins in the middle of the action, the madness, the hunt for something.
"It's a technique that makes a galloping entry," said Freele, a prolific author of fiction, including the short story collection Feeding Strays, as well as nonfiction and poetry. But there's a common challenge when we write dramatic action: where to fit in the back story, which, as Freele described, is how the character got to this place in the plot. While action is usually written in scenes, back story can be explained through exposition.
But too often the reader is ripped from the action, then dropped in the character's past (an effect my thesis adviser says is like being pulled from a dream). Freele, who has reviewed hundreds of submissions, has seen it countless times. By the time she returns to the plot she is lost.
What to do? Weave in the back story with a sentence or two--just a few facts or clues. When there's too much back story, the author isn't trusting the reader to understand. "Words should be to create beauty and have fun without bogging the reader down," she said. "Pare it to the waist. Get rid of the soft and saggy spots."
After participants read and discussed several examples from literature, Freele led us through some writing exercises: First, we brainstormed a list of active verbs (nothing dry like sighs or stares): runs, shoots, claws, shoves, jiggles, rushes, screeches, falls. Then, we chose a character (an old man, a wife, a girl). Finally, we wrote for five minutes, staying in the present tense--which kept us in the action.
After a few people read aloud, we continued writing action, beginning with "Here is what/where you will find..."
Finally, we continued our stories, using "Her father/his teacher/their aunt used to say..." as a starting point, revealing character through just a few lines of back story.
Here is my free write, inspired by news of tragic accidents while I was in Yosemite last week as several people plunged to their deaths above the Mist Trail into Vernal Falls:
"The water, ice cold, rushes past him, up to his neck now. He claws at it to no avail. Fir branches snap against granite. He hears shouting above the storm, everything churning too fast, their voices growing distant. Blurred bodies hover at the edge. It is no use. He knows this as the currents pull him down.
Here is where you will find she is lost below the torrent. You've no idea how long it's been. Only that there was a splash, followed by the shock of absence.
Her mother used to say, stay back from the ledge. Don't stand at the rim of the canyon, peering in. The strange thing was, she hadn't. Hadn't balanced on a boulder above the river or leaned over to reach for a butterfly. Their little girl had only done as she was told, smiling her missing-tooth grin for the camera, her sandals scuffing the gravel underfoot. Then falling away beneath them. A smile, a slip, a shriek."
Try it! Stay tuned for two more samples of Freele's writing exercises next week...