Some stories plunge the reader right into the action. In crime fiction, that often means they start with a murder, or at least the leadup to the murder. There’s good reason for this, too, since most readers want to be quickly drawn into a story.
Other stories begin as though the narrator were speaking directly to the reader (e.g. ‘Let me tell you about the time….’). The story itself is then told between ‘bookends’ at the beginning and end. It’s not easy to pull that off successfully, because it can be jarring. But when it’s done well, it can be a creative way to start a story.
For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual begins as Sherlock Holmes is sorting through some of his earlier cases. Dr. Watson finds a few odds and ends that seem like junk – until Holmes tells him the story of the case. It all happened when a former university friend, Reginald Musgrave, asked Holmes to help him solve the mystery of a missing butler and housemaid. It turns out that these disappearances had everything to do with an old Musgrave family ritual that involved a poem that each Musgrave heir recited. When Holmes worked out what the poem meant, he was able to solve the case. As you can imagine, Watson is properly impressed with his friend’s deductive abilities.
Agatha Christie used this strategy in a few of her stories. One of them is Murder in Mesopotamia. The story is narrated by Amy Leatheran, a nurse hired to look after Louise Leidner, who joined an archaeological expedition headed by her famous husband, Dr. Eric Leidner. She hasn’t really fit in, though, and seems to be plagued by nervous fears. So, her husband decided to hire someone to help with her anxiety. Enter Amy Leatheran. One afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and he is persuaded to look into the matter. He learns that Louise was not as well-liked as it seemed on the surface, and more than one person might have had a motive to kill. After a (fictional) foreward, the story begins this way:
I don’t pretend to be an author or know anything about writing. I’m doing this simply because Dr. Reilly asked me to…
‘Treat it as case notes, if you like.’
Well, of course, you can look at it that way…
It’s an interesting way to set the stage.
Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, junior in a publishing company, who decides on a change of scenery after the death of his beloved wife. He moves into a very respectable London hotel. One day, he discovers that his predecessor in the room left an odd thing behind: a long, thick hank of human hair. When he has an unpleasant encounter with the room’s former occupant, Hand decides he has to find out more about the woman whose hair he found. Did she die? If not, what happened to her? The more he tries to find out, the more obsessed he becomes, and this has all sorts of consequences. Here’s how the story begins:
‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’
He then proceeds to tell the story. It’s an interesting way to pique the reader’s interest.
C.J. Box is possibly best known for his Joe Pickett series. But he’s also written several standalones, including Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In it, we meet Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa. Based in Denver, they both have successful jobs, and they’re the loving adopted parents of nine-month-old Angelina. Their lives are turned upside down when they’re informed that Angelina’s biological father, Garret Moreland (who never legally relinquished custody), wants to exercise his parental rights. At first, the McGuanes think this might just be a terrible misunderstanding. But Moreland’s father is a powerful local judge who will use the full force of his authority to support his son. He tries to buy off the McGuanes, but they refuse. Then, they are served with legal papers. They must relinquish custody of Angelina within 21 days, or face the full force of the law. The McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either would have imagined. Jack McGuane narrates the story. After a short beginning, he says,
‘I assume you’ve heard my name, or seen my image on the news, although with everything going on in the world I can understand if you missed me the first time. Our story, in the big scheme of things, is a drop in the river.’
Drop or not, it’s the story of every parent’s nightmare: the prospect of losing a loved child.
And then there’s Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. This story is narrated by Mnemosyne, who’s usually known as Memory, or ‘Memo,’ who’s in prison in Harare. She was convicted of murdering her adoptive father, Lloyd Hendricks, a conviction that carries an automatic death sentence. Now, she’s writing a letter to Melinda Carter, a journalist with a history of exposing miscarriages of justice. Memo and her lawyer are hoping that if she tells her story, she will escape execution, since there’s been a change of government in Zimbabwe. With that end in mind, Memo tells her story, beginning with the years of her childhood, and explaining how she came to meet Hendricks. As the story goes on, we learn about her life, and we see what happened through her eyes. We also learn how Hendricks really died. It’s a creative way to give ‘bookends’ to the story.
And that’s the thing about stories where the reader is directly addressed – as though the protagonist (or antagonist!) were telling the reader about a real experience. They can be creative ways to provide context for a story, and they allow the reader to get to know the protagonist well. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Christie Lee.