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Fiction and the Inverted Pyramid

Old Leather Books-- Thomas Love Peacock

Image by Wyoming_Jackrabbit via Flickr

Today, I’m thinking about story beginnings. Not just about writing opening lines that catch a reader’s interest, but the elements needed to keep a reader invested once they get past that first line.

Robin Black put it best in her post, “To Begin” on Beyond the Margins. Black desribes an epiphany she had while teaching a writing class on story beginnings:

In the moment before the story starts, the reader knows nothing, and the author knows everything.”

That statement clearly defines the balance of power in the reader/writer relationship at the opening of any story.  For the relationship to work, the writer must share enough of what he knows to keep the reader interested.  Too little information, and you run the risk of your reader wandering off and never coming back. Too much, and the reader may be overwhelmed to the point of giving up.

Black continues her post by exploring importance of clarity and orienting a reader in the story:

“One approach to helping a reader feel oriented at the start of a story is to try to supply as much contextualizing data as possible, so all the who, how, where type questions are answered ASAP.

As I read this, I was reminded of Journalism 101 and the inverted pyramid. Newspaper stories front-load the important data. The reader gets a clear indication of who, what, where, when, and why right in the first paragraphs. A good example is this story in the New York Times about the recent storms in Arkansas. Within the space of two paragraphs, you are completely grounded in the story.

Fictional openings can work the same way. Consider this example from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce:

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hand’s were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.

Does it answer every reader question? No, but it brings the reader into the scene without confusion. Who are we reading about? An unnamed man. What is going on? He’s about to be hung. Where? A railroad bridge in Alabama.  We don’t know the whys and hows of the situation, but we have enough information to follow along.

Take a look at your favorite stories and novels. Read the first few paragraphs and analyze them for the information they contain. How do they lead readers into the story?

Next time you write the opening for a new story, strive to make things clear for the reader. A few unanswered questions will keep them reading, confusion will not.

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2 comments on “Fiction and the Inverted Pyramid

  1. […] has to face the daunting beginning of the story. Author Barbara Tyler introduces the concept of the inverted pyramid; YA and middle grade author Paul Dorset shows us how NOT to start a story (and then how to); agent […]

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