I’m working on a series on pacing. You can see other posts in the series here.
Beginnings don’t have to start with summary; they can start with demonstration. The demonstration should involve the setting more than it does anything else. You might pull off extremely minor actions or dialogue, but try just using setting first. It’s easier.
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.
This is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s rich with detail, but doesn’t have as much of an attitude as Pride & Prejudice. This isn’t a book about gently laughing at one’s neighbors and one’s self, but a book about image versus reality, and the contusions that living a false image can force upon oneself.
Note the longer sentences, longer paragraphs, more complex sentence structure, and the veneer of polysyllabic words.
This is going to be an involved kind of story with a lot of atmosphere, ripe with self-destruction. Just look at the words:
- smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes
- hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs
- sullen murmur of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass
- circling with monotonous insistence
- the stillness more oppressive
One of the tricks of pacing is that you can, by matching up form and content, foreshadow the events to come. If you lay down the same pattern in the beginning that you do in the end, the reader will get a hint of the structure to come–even if you use elements with a different content. The ostensible content of this beginning is about a garden, but the pacing shows a pattern of decay and oppression.
The content and form at the end are openly about decay and oppression, and the reader feels like it “must” be that way, because they have been observing the same pattern throughout the work.
Not every work uses foreshadowing, but a lot of masterpieces do. Go back to the Pride and Prejudice example. In the end, the main character gets married to a wealthy single man. The pattern of the ending is set up in the beginning, in an even more obvious fashion than it is here.
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