What Have I Got in My Pocket

What Have I Got in My Pocket

The recent release of the new "Hobbit" film has gotten me thinking about the narrative pleasures of that book, and in particular, the moment that stuck with me from reading the book as a child. It's just when Bilbo is struggling to outwit the slithery Gollum with his little riddle game, and fumbles for the plain gold ring he has just slipped into his pocket. Unthinkingly, stumped for riddles, Bilbo asks, "What have I got in my pocket?" This moment is the start of one of the grandest triumphs in the book - and a terrific example of a simple, intriguing way to get a story in motion.

Instead of beginning your story or scene with a flat declaration, or a flat description, consider opening a door or presenting a problem. A description or statement stops the story dead in its tracks; there is nothing more to add, nothing more to wonder, if we are baldly told the state of things. It's the job of the storyteller not to accurately render a still-life, but to depict motion and conflict, to push a boulder off a cliff or pull the emergency brake off a car on the top of a hill. Let the car start rolling out of control; don't lock it down with a flat statement.

So how do we begin in motion? It might be as simple as Tolkien's method in this scene of the Hobbit, by starting with a question, an intriguing mystery. Start with a character unsure of what has happened. Recently a film came out that I thought had marvelous writing (I believe it's based on a novel, which might explain things). It's called Winter's Bone, and it's set in a poor, rural neighborhood in Appalacia. A girl who is the head of her family discovers that her absentee father is up for bail and put the house up for collateral, but now he's missing. Without the father, the house will be sold.

In this opening, we're immediately presented with a problem; we're also immediately wondering where the father is and how he will be found. The stakes of the house to lose drives the entire story, keeping us on edge, watching with eagerness and concern. In the same way, the riddle game of the Hobbit is a well-loved scene in the book because of the inherent drama and danger in the scene. We love seeing the play of words and matched wits because of the problem at the heart of the exchange.

So what question will you have to ask at the start of your next scene?