Jennifer Finney Boylan is Professor of English at Colby College and the author of the bestseller She’s Not There, as well as the acclaimed novels The Planets and Getting In. A three-time guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has also appeared on Larry King Live, Today, and 48 Hours, and has played herself on ABC’s All My Children. She lives in Belgrade Lakes, Maine.
One suggestion I have for writers of memoir is that you should use the same rule to structure your scenes that you would use to decide when to arrive at, and when to leave, a cocktail party. That rule might be summarized: Come in late, and get out early.
Let’s say you’re invited to a party that begins at 9PM. What time do you arrive? Some folks might say ten o’clock, others closer to midnight, but almost no one would say to arrive exactly at 9PM. I admit that I’ve had a few friends who can be regularly depended upon to do just this, but let’s be honest: their exactitude is embarrassing. It makes me like them less.
Plus, being the first person at a party is mortifying. You stand around, watching your host take cheese out of the refrigerator. As Jimmy Durante use to say, “It’s mortifyin’.”
And in just this way, you don’t want to start your first scene — or any scene, for that matter — from square one. Don’t write the narrative equivalent of people who arrive at a nine o’clock party at nine o’clock. Arrive late—not so late that your reader (or your host) is overly confused. Arrive precisely late enough to be interesting.
Example: What’s the most commonly used opening sentence in stories written by student writers? I can assure you it’s something like, “Ring! Ring! Ring! said the alarm clock.”
When I teach an intro fiction class, I can be relatively certain that at least one or two stories every semester will begin with an alarm clock ringing. When I was a young writer, I’m sure I used that opening myself more than once.
Why do apprentice writers begin with the Alarm Clock Opening? Because they aren’t quite sure where to begin, so they begin at the beginning, with a character waking up. The story often then follows the character as she walks down the hallway to the bathroom, brushes her teeth, puts on her clothes, has breakfast, and then walks outside, where a spaceship lands and an alien points a ray-gun at them and they dissolve into a sentient mist of energy-light-heat. (For instance.)
A much better opening to this story might be: “As I dissolved into a sentient mist of energy-light-heat, I had a last, lingering thought about my daughter….” That’s coming in late.
You can always flash back from the sentient cloud of mist to the events that led up to it. But as a general rule, it’s best to begin with that moment, with the story already under way. This is true whether it’s the opening line of a story, or whether it’s a single scene happening in its middle.
By the same logic, you don’t want to end your story too late. If the last guest at the party leaves at 3AM, what time do you, the perfect guest, leave? Hint: it’s not 3AM, unless you’re helping with the dishes. If it were me, I’d want
to be on my way by about 1:45 at the latest. I would want people to think that my exit marked the moment the party started going downhill. Because I am that entertaining.
So let’s say your first draft ends something like this: “The aliens returned me to human form and suddenly I found myself on the sidewalk. My daughter stood before me. ‘Where have you been?’ she asked me. I told her all about the aliens, but she didn’t believe me. We went out to Arby’s and had some curly fries, and then I drove us
both home and as I got into bed, I turned out the light and thought, ‘What a weird day that was.’ Then I fell asleep, and dreamed about nothing.”
This paragraph is the equivalent of someone who stays at your party until 3AM and doesn’t even help with the dishes.
This story really wants to end like this: “The aliens returned me to human form and suddenly I found myself on the sidewalk. My daughter stood before me. ‘Where have you been?’ she asked.”
That’s getting out early.
Of course there are times when you want to linger on your ending, just as there are times to begin a story with a long, slow buildup. But on the whole, if you structure your scenes using the logic of arriving at, and departing from a party, your reader will always think of you as — well, what else? — a welcome guest.