Prophetic Openings

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“They murdered him.”
Opening line from The Chocolate Wars by Robert Cormier.

I remember reading The Chocolate Wars for the first time. I was fascinated by the rivalries set up and by the ultimate price paid by the main character. Then, Robert Cormier came to Little Rock to speak and I went back and took another look. That opening line set up the ending.

Opening Lines Should Predict/Foreshadow What Follows

In the opening scene, the main character is playing football, in spite of being too skinny, too small. He gets smashed into the ground, hence “They murdered him.” But in the end, the Chocolate gang literally beats him up. The opening contained the ending in encapsulated form.

At the Seattle retreat, we focused on these Prophetic Openings as a way to get into the imagery of the story. For example, one writer took her characters to Florida so the brother could participate in dolphin therapy for his muscular dystrophy. However, the opening lines talked about how dolphins assist in the care of their young. “Dolphin aunts” often nudge a newborn to the surface for his/her first breath.

Wow, that’s a great opening. But–what does that have to do with muscular dystrophy? If the muscles are the focus, then something about the dolphins muscles would be more appropriate.

Ah–but what if, the brother had cystic fibrosis instead of muscular dystrophy? Then, the image of helping a newborn breathe takes on new meaning in the story. In this case, the writer wasn’t wedded to the idea of muscular dystrophy and chose to go with the new breathing disorder. If MD had been her focus, though, she could have changed the opening imagery.

Likewise, another writer had a story the incorporated farming. We talked about various imagery she might use: firing a field to get it ready for planting and then continue fire as a cleansing image or as a home fires image; taproots of native grasses that sink twenty feet into the ground, making the prairie able to withstand all sorts of disasters; farming tools and implements, such as a plow.

In other words, look at what you’ve already got in your story and see if there is imagery available to use. Keep it integral to the story elements but bring it forward some to create imagery and symbols that hold power within your story. Craft a prophetic opening that sets up the ending.

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