Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Fugitive and the art of beginnings

with 6 comments

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.)

6 Responses

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  1. This is a great post. I’ve often struggled with where to begin a novel. After completing the edit on one manuscript, I felt the beginning was too slow, so I chopped the first chapter, jumped right into the second which was a merger of chapters 2, 3 and 4.

    When I shared this with a friend who had read the original draft, she said she missed all the information in the original first chapter. But I didn’t change it. I felt the changes put the reader right into the action.

    After reading your post, I know I did the right thing.

    I haven’t seen the Fugitive, yet. I used to watch the television show and Harrison Ford is my favourite actor, so I really have no excuse. I better get to it soon.

    Diane

    Diana Lynn Tibert

    January 19, 2011 at 11:50 am

  2. Glad you liked the post! I think it’s very common for authors to write and then cut an expository opening chapter (which is what happened for my first, unpublished novel). It might even be useful as a way of easing into a new project. Once its purpose has been served, though, it’s usually best to cut it from the final draft.

    And I envy you the chance to watch The Fugitive for the first time. You’ll have to let me know what you think…

    nevalalee

    January 19, 2011 at 12:04 pm

  3. Great post! I am struggling with this very issue right now–yet another reason to tuck away chapter one and get on with the story already. Your reference to film is also excellent–film has done a lot to change the way we write/read books. Readers seem to demand instant action these days; the requirement for speed at the outset of most books makes me wish a bit for slower Victorian days, but such is the literary landscape now. I guess I should just get used to it . . . Thanks!

    Samantha Rajaram

    January 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm

  4. Thank you! As you read this blog, you’ll notice that I tend to draw many of my examples from movies, both because they’re generally more accessible and because my own writing has been hugely influenced by film. And while it’s true that the pacing of novels has been affected by pressure from other media—they just need to be a little faster and more immediately engaging than before—it doesn’t mean that they can’t still be layered and complex. Or so I hope.

    nevalalee

    January 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm

  5. To my surprise, I actually bought “The Fugitive” DVD. It must have been on one of those days when I happened upon a bin of $5 movies. I knew I wanted to see it, so I bought it and put it on the shelf for later.

    I think you’re right about that first chapter just being an exercise to get to the start of a book. After reading a few of my old stories — both novel and short — I find that I used the first several pages to introduce the scene and characters. Nobody wants to waste time reading that stuff anymore. It’s best to inject it here and there after the real story begins.

    Diane

    Diane Tibert

    January 26, 2011 at 9:30 am

  6. The “easing in” tendency is also true of individual chapters and scenes, which is why it’s often a good idea for a writer to think about cutting the first and last paragraphs of whatever he or she writes. (I discuss this point more thoroughly here.)

    nevalalee

    January 26, 2011 at 11:05 am


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