by Robert Lopresti
If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now. This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump. I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.
It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller. You want the bit that begins around 2:20.
I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule. It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay. Assuming that is true, of course
Now, how does that relate to writing? (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)
Glad you asked. We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news. It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order. But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede." If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.
Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop. But that's story-telling, not journalism.
These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader. To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:
I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.
Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.
You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit. But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.