Scott, The Dog And Starting Your Story With Questions

Hello!  This lunchtime, while walking around Brighton, I overheard a snippet of conversation between a man and a woman.

Actually, "overheard" isn't the right word, as they were almost entirely toothless, can-clutching alcoholics, yelling hoarsely at each other across the full width of a road.

"Scott ain't gonna be happy when he finds out," shouted the man.

The woman's face crumpled with confusion and disgust.  "Who the fuck is Scott?"

"Yeah, Scott," came the reply.  "The one who give you the dog."

That's all I heard, before I turned a corner.

When I tweeted the exchange, questions immediately arose on my timeline.  One in particular.

@Kayleidogyn piped up with "Is the dog OK?"

I couldn't help her there, as there had been no dog in sight.

"WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DOG!?" queried @gfdewards.  Again, I couldn't help.

"And what happened to Scott?" wondered @ReluctantGeeks, only compounding the mystery.

"Conservative Party conference?" wondered a cheeky @MrsNickyClark.

Many other questions were asked, mostly centring on the dog while some focused on Scott.

I'd tweeted that exchange because it struck me as a fascinating slice of life, but over lunch I realised it was interesting for another reason.

It was a pretty good example of how to start a story.

Some of the best stories throw you right into the deep end without a rubber ring.  It's then up to you, from the cunning snippets provided, to piece together what the hell's going on.  This is a particularly prevalent technique in prose, the best of which inspires the brain to fill in blanks and build up the big picture in a really satisfying way.  It credits the reader with intelligence rather than offering them big ladle-loads of straightforward information.

Completely disorientating the reader is, of course, optional.  What's absolutely vital is the posing of questions.  If a story were to start with the aforementioned yelled conversation across a street, then the reader would instantly have the following questions in mind:

1) Where is this dog and what the hell's happened to it?

2) Where is Scott and why did he give this woman the dog, when she doesn't even know his name?

3) What will be the repercussions when an unhappy Scott finds out about all this, whatever it is?

4) How do this yelling pair know each other?

5) How many times today have they already had this exact same conversation?

And so on.  In a short space of time, our imagination has been engaged.  We also have ideas about this duo's nature as characters and how we feel about them.  Don't know about you, but I'm leaning towards the guy in terms of likeability, as he seems to question the woman's apparently negligent behaviour.  But of course this initial impression could soon be turned upside down as we learn more.

As this story unfolds, we might start to realise that the woman conned Scott into giving her the dog, because Scott was mistreating the animal.  Perhaps by pretending not to know who Scott is, she's playing down or covering up her efforts to give this dog a better life.  Maybe she stole the dog but told this guy that Scott gave it to her and now he's publicly bringing it up, she hastily lies.

Anyway, the point is, if one thing keeps people hooked on a story, it's a question, or ideally a whole raft of them.  As the story continues, the number of unanswered questions diminishes, but hopefully we're caught up in character and momentum and don't need quite so many question marks to motivate us.  One thing's for sure: when the final question is answered, the author should get the hell out of Storyville as quickly as possible.

It's good, at the start of a story, to throw the audience slap-bang into the middle of things, into a pool of questions and intriguing characters.  Give them the dramatic equivalent of an overheard slice of conversation, or literally an overheard conversation, provided it poses questions.

Often, this will involve starting your story in the middle.  Or right at the end, then flashing back.  Arguably, we see the latter technique more often in novels than film or TV, because a novel can generally handle time-jumps with greater ease.  Prose can flash back so much more smoothly.  Film and TV have admittedly become slicker at that stuff - these days, it's no longer all about "Two days earlier" cards and screens going wobbly - but all a novel has to do is start with Rosie getting an ear-bashing from Doug about the dog Scott gave her, then say "Rosie's week had started normally enough..." and we've time-travelled in the blink of an eye.

We don't always have to start our stories in the middle, or at the end.  Some perfectly great stories are perfectly linear, from start to finish.  The only important thing, really, as ever, is that questions are raised from the off.  We can follow Rosie from A to B to C to D to E, provided that, for instance, we don't fully understand why she's taking that route until, say, B or C or even D, by which time the story's well underway and we're invested.  Or the question, right from the off, is "Will Rosie manage to evade the furious and violent Scott who's scouring Brighton for her and Rover?  Will the pair of them end up in a nice flat in a new town, safe from harm?"

Anyway.  Hope that dog's all right, wherever it is.

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1 comment:

Mason T. Matchak said...

This makes all kinds of sense. ^_^ I've been trying to figure out several plots, and they always seem to start best when there's something happening right from the first word, with no time for introductions or explanations.

...and now I'm kind of wondering about the dog too.