Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Beginnings: Some Preliminary Considerations: Exposition

A prelude to analyzing short fiction. On exposition and the opening paragraph.

When I try to find something to say about first sentences I'm almost forced to think in terms of the "hook," one of the conventions of the short fiction review. In a story of a few thousand words there's no time for leisurely development, or so we are often told. If you accept this as a general principle, it's only natural to look for that hook, to devote at least a sentence or two to how the author has or has not succeeded in generating immediate interest. Let's leave for another time how this may or may not reflect a basic anxiety vis-à-vis the written word competing with the flash-and-pass mode of the electronic media.

I wanted to begin with opening paragraphs rather than sentences, precisely to get past the "hook" --the workshop clincher that's become a cliché of the genre. Though short fiction typically opens in medias res, a story that dispensed altogether with opening exposition would likely be received as "experimental," or in some way, unconventional. The opening exposition, we all know, may establish setting, tone, introduce characters, present necessary facts; those are the obvious functions, but some of these may not come till later in the narrative, and none of them alone quite hit on what may be the defining features, those that truly begin the story--which initiate the process and stamp everything that follows with its particular identity, such that, were the writer to violate what has been laid out in that beginning, she would have to change it--or lose the story in a narrative cul-de-sac.

What I've looked for in the opening paragraphs is an answer to the question: where does the beginning end? Where do we find the point of no return, that which defines the initial identify of the story? Surely not in the first sentence. Next candidate: the first paragraph?

But then, how do we define a paragraph?

How do we deal with stories that begin with dialog?

Or divide into smaller units what might just as well have been combined into a single paragraph?

A paragraph, we have to understand, is more than a typographical feature; it's fundamentally a rhetorical structure--and as I have no interest in pseudo-objective theorizing, I think it's important as well to introduce, even on the most elemental level, questions of aesthetics, but first, the rhetorical structure.

I can't think of a better place to look than Francis Christensen's "A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph." Christensen's basic formulation comes down to two principles.

One: the first sentence is the head of the paragraph. (We don't concern ourselves with identifying the "topic sentence," as this confuses structure and content.)

Two: every sentence after the head will either be subordinate to the sentence immediately before it, or coordinate with any sentence earlier in the paragraph. A sentence that breaks the sequence is out of place, marks the beginning of, or a transition to a new paragraph.

Virtually all of the many ways to structure a paragraph can be understood in terms of those principles. As for aesthetic questions, these take on meaning only in relation to the stories we want to analyze, so this will have to wait until tomorrow when I hope to post the first review (more likely, the way this is going, Part 1 of the first review!)

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