The Wit’s Guide to Beginnings
Or, throat-clearing hooptedoodle
Right in the middle?
Yes, there’s no greater gimmick in the history of narrative than starting things in medias res. Just cut to the chase without saying who’s chasing who, or why. Otherwise you have to begin with the cast of characters and the throat clearing and the exposition and the world building and, wow, what a chore.
“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.”
— Donald Barthelme
So the best way to start is to pretend the beginning is the middle. But you still need an opener. You need someone to set you up the way Carl Reiner set Mel Brooks up to be The 2,000 Year Old Man. In that classic sketch, Brooks plays the superannuated codger who answers Reiner’s innocuous questions.
“Did you know Jesus?” Reiner asked as they invented the skit.
“A thin lad,” Brooks answered. “He always came into the store. He never bought anything.”
The key, Brooks stressed, was that someone had to start.
“I think the real engine behind it is Carl, not me,” Brooks told the AV Club in 2009. “I’m just collecting the fares. But he’s the guy that creates the subjects, the questions, and creates a kind of buoyant, effervescent, terribly naïve character.”
“Beginning to tell a story is like making a pass at a total stranger in a restaurant.”
— Amos Oz
The Greatest Story Ever Told begins with “In the beginning,” which is momentous but maybe unnecessary? “To say that something was created in the beginning is to say that it originated at the origin,” writes the literary critic Terry Eagleton. “So the first three words of the Bible could be lopped off with no great loss of sense.”
“In the beginning there was the Word — at the end, just the Cliché.”
— Stanislaw Lec
“Never open a book with weather” is how Elmore Leonard opened his famous list of rules for writing, and he followed that with “Avoid prologues.” To back that one up, he quotes a Steinbeck character’s complaint: “I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
“‘Call me Ishmael.’ Three words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?”
— Margaret Atwood
Every hero gets an origin story, even if most of them are hooptedoodle. The beginning of Jeeves, the best butler to ever have buttled, is a tale that could launch a Wodehouse Cinematic Universe.
When Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was a young man, he “was a prominent pest at houses where butlers were maintained.” As he recalls in his memoir Over Seventy, one such house belonged to William Schwenck Gilbert, the wordy half of Gilbert and Sullivan.
This giant of the Victorian stage was full of witty anecdotes but not infinitely so, which meant that his loyal butler had certainly heard them all. The particular anecdote that young P.G. witnessed was “one of those very long deceptively dull stories where you make the build-up as tedious as you can … so as to stun the audience with the unexpected snaperoo.” But Wodehouse missed the mark and laughed too early, confusing his fellow guests and silently infuriating his host:
His eyes, beneath their beetling brows, seared my very soul. In order to get away from them, I averted my gaze and found myself encountering that of the butler. His eyes were shining with a doglike devotion. For some reason which I was unable to understand, I appeared to have made his day.
That reason, Wodehouse later surmised, was that Gilbert’s delighted butler immediately knew he’d never have to hear that particular story again. His silent guffaw would then transmogrify into the character of Jeeves, thus proving that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s unexpected snaperoo.
“Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.”
— Lillian Hellman
This week’s Perquisites for Paid Subscribers!
What do you call a wit whose best quip is always quoted back to her? A case of the tale dogging the wag. That line and many others in this week’s ReccoMention, the likes of which are available each week for a mere C$30/year.
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“It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.”
— Dashiell Hammett
Insinuations nearly trumped Beginnings last week. I’m not saying that they’ll win this week, but I’m not not saying that, either.
That was Issue 235 of Get Wit Quick, which had to start somewhere. Actually, it began in my 2014 book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting and shows no sign of stopping. Tapping the ❤️ below will only encourage me.