But You Should See The Other Guy (Establishing Conflict in First Lines)
The following is an excerpt from my critical paper I submitted to Antioch University of Los Angeles as part of the requirements for attaining my MFA in Fiction Writing. It focuses on the first of seven different techniques for creating compelling first lines.
When we break down ABR’s list and look for the elements that editors, agents, and MFA chairs have recommended we begin with, the most common approach by authors on the list is to establish a strong conflict. No less than sixty-three of the 100 lines establish or allude to a central conflict. The level to which they develop it differs greatly. Consider something as simple as “124 was spiteful” (100BestLines.asp 26). Here, Toni Morrison sets up a conflict with three words—we may not know off hand what 124 is, but the word “spiteful” indicates opposition. Contrarily, Ha Jin is more specific, but still as succinct. In his novel, Waiting he writes, “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose village to divorce his wife, Shuyu” (100BestLines.asp 29). Some writers, are much more verbose, such as Robert Graves in I, Claudius:
“I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled” (100BestLines.asp 87).
But beginning with a compelling conflict (either with prolixity, profundity, or brevity) can be a challenge. Countless writers often struggle with where to begin. They’ve an idea for a fantastic novel, an arresting story that will be sure to live on centuries after they’re dead. They’ve the great American novel all written in their head, and have only to put it on paper. Critics will hail their accomplishments for decades to come and English professors will have their classes analyze it until their eyes bleed. The only problem is they’ve no idea where to start. You know these guys—they’re the ones behind their computer with seventeen different first pages to the same thing. Are they procrastinators, or perfectionists? More importantly, does it matter? Why can’t they finish the thing? “I just don’t know where to start,” they’ll say.
Ashley, a creative writing student of mine, had this problem. She’d shown me four or five openings to the same story over the course of a semester. Each time I sat down with her and said, “What are you trying to say?”
“Well,” she’d say, “I want to tell the simple story of an orphaned knight who spurned his rightful place on the throne and whose only friend is his horse who is his constant companion, his conscious, if you will, who helps guide him in difficult moral situations when the knight is tempted to …”
This is the point where I hold up my hand and ask her to take a breath because she’s close to blue. Her problem is not where to begin, but when. The story is so large it’s become unwieldy, and part of the writing process is selecting which story to tell. One way to do this is to write first lines for each major turning point in the novel. Which of them rings truest? Which gets us into the heart of the fiction?
Jerome Stern encourages us to “begin with tension and immediacy. Make readers feel the story has started. They want to be in your world, not be told about it. Don’t preface—plunge in,” (Stern 96). In a novel, we’ve nearly 350 pages to figure out back story. Sometimes the beginning is not the place to begin, but rather, in the middle. Establish the central conflict immediately, and we’ll be sucked in.
Maybe you have two parents who are dealing with the loss of one of their children. Maybe you’re not sure what happened to the son, but it was something terrible and tragic—something that would haunt them for years to come. Suicide, you decide, is overdone. And then it hits you—a school bus crash. You’ll sit down at your computer, or on your couch with your notebook, or beside the lake under the old shade tree with a scratch pad and a charcoal pencil, and you’ll try to capture in words the extreme sorrow that the parents are wallowing in—and none of it will ring. Each time you try you’ll discover that you’re on the wrong track—you’ll be frustrated, and may throw your notebook into the lake, or shove it under the couch cushions, or simply smash the monitor of your computer.
In this case, it might be much more productive to begin with the central tension—that is the bus crash, and the effect it has on the parents. “She divorced him because whenever he kissed her, she saw a yellow school bus wrenched in two, and the bodies of sixty-something third graders littered across the freeway.”
Or maybe you’re wanting a more succinct way to get to the conflict. Is there a way to simply create conflict without an overabundance of detail? In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon begins with conflict concisely—“A screaming comes across the sky” (100BestLines.asp 3). Here, we’re not given a sense of character, a sense of setting or, really, even point of view—we don’t even know what the central conflict is, but we know one exists. When is a scream, especially one coming across the sky, ever good? And who, or what, is screaming? These are the questions which compel us to read.
Flannery O’Connor was a master of compounding conflict. Her award winning novel The Violent Bear it Away is no exception. The first line begins with a dead body and a drunk at a breakfast table—two conflicts equally worthy of their own stories, to be sure. “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up” (100BestLines.asp 70).