The Fugitive and the art of beginnings
The other day, as we were talking about the divergent career paths that the leads of Star Wars had taken, my wife asked me what the last great Harrison Ford movie had been. I answered without hesitation: The Fugitive. And, immediately, I wanted to watch it again. Much to my relief, I found that it’s still a great movie. In particular, the first half hour strikes me as close to perfect: it plunges us right into the action, elegantly introduces the hero and his dilemma, and then all but throws us into the next stage of the story. Ideally, on first viewing, we’re too caught up in the narrative to think about the craft on display. It might even seem easy. But it isn’t.
Which brings us to a larger question: at what point in the story should a novel or movie begin? If the answer seems obvious—a story should begin at the beginning—that’s a good thing, because it means we’ve been spoiled by works of art that, by and large, begin at the right time. But the question of where an extended narrative should begin is as old as the Iliad and as recent as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (I don’t want to harp on this subject yet again, but if Stieg Larsson had known exactly where to begin and end his story, that book would have been infinitely more readable.)
The short answer is that the narrative should begin as late in the story as possible. In movie terms: burn the first reel. David Mamet, as always, is endlessly quotable:
Almost any film can be improved by throwing out the first ten minutes. That exposition, which assuaged the script reader, the coverage writer, the studio exec, the star and her handlers puts the audience to sleep sleep sleep. Get right into the action, and the audience will figure it out. (Simple test, for the unbelieving: when you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?)
And this is as true for novels as of movies, if not more so. One useful test: on rereading a novel, do you skip the first thirty pages to get to the good stuff? If so, make a careful note of where you begin rereading, because that’s more or less where the novel should have begun. The same principle applies if you leave off reading before the end. For instance, I rarely reread the opening of The Day of the Jackal, and I’ll usually skip several of the explanatory chapters near the end of The Silence of the Lambs. And these are two beautifully constructed novels, which implies how hard it can be to put together the pieces.
In the case of The Fugitive, the credited screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, the director, Andrew Davis, and the six editors made a series of strong choices. (Perhaps luck played a role as well: filming was evidently begun before the script was finished, and the screenplay had a lot of uncredited hands.) The film could have opened with an ordinary day in the life of Dr. Richard Kimble, or at the party in which he and his wife were last seen, or even at his graduation from medical school. Instead, it opens exactly where the real story begins: at the moment of his wife’s murder. Necessary information is conveyed in a series of rapid flashbacks. And Kimble is arrested, tried, and convicted before the credits are over. (After such a virtuoso opening, it’s no surprise that the movie’s second half is a little deflating.)
Of course, if your movie is called The Fugitive, and based on a famous television show of the same name, you probably have a pretty good sense of where your story needs to start. For an original novel, it isn’t always as clear. In general, as John Gardner says, a novel should open “when the action actually begins,” which comes perilously close to tautology. Ultimately, experience is the only guide. At the beginning, it’s likely that the author will write one or more opening chapters that will need to be cut, later on, as the true shape of the novel becomes clear. Which is fine. But the best solution, by far, is not to write the unnecessary scenes in the first place.
(That said, I’m not a fan of novels or movies that begin at a dramatic moment near the climax, then flash back to show how the protagonist got into this mess. There are exceptions, of course—The Usual Suspects is one of the greatest, and Michael Clayton just barely gets away with it—but for the most part, it makes the story look, as Gardner puts it, “gimmicky and self-regarding.” Far better, I think, to find a striking scene that takes place early in the story’s chronology, and begin there. Every shift in time forces the reader to stop and regroup. The novel will be more readable if you pick the right opening moment and run with it.)