On the Opening of Dancing in the Dark and Other Beginnings
DANCING IN THE DARK begins with a scene that builds to the most climactic moment in the story. We meet a narrator who is feeling trapped, yet is afraid to leave her room, afraid of her father. The reader does not yet know why, and hopefully will want to find out.
The narrator, Ditty, tells us that she has a dance performance that evening, and is expected at rehearsal. But she is tired and troubled. “I want to close my eyes and make my problems disappear. I don’t want to deal with the consequences of the past five years.” At this point, hopefully the reader will wonder what these consequences are, and what has been going on for the past five years that has led to such consequences too dreadful to face.
Deciding, after all, that she can’t let herself or her teacher down, Ditty tries to sneak out of the house, but her father intercepts her and forbids her to leave. He issues an ultimatum: “If you leave now, you are not to come back. Do you understand, Yehudit? You are not to come back.” These words form the pivotal point around which the story revolves.
Ditty hesitates. “I don’t want to stay here, but I don’t want to leave here and never come back, either. I’m only seventeen.” If she disobeys her father now, she will never again be welcome in her home. So ends the prologue. The rest of the story, beginning with Chapter One, is a flashback that leads up to this point and beyond.
So, why did I begin with the climactic prologue? Why didn’t I tell the story strictly chronologically, beginning it with Chapter One?
Firstly, it’s important to establish the narrative voice early on. Given that the bulk of the story spans five years, and the entire story eight years, the reader might have wondered who was telling the story – the twelve-year-old Ditty from Chapter One? The twenty-year-old Ditty from the epilogue? By beginning the story with a prologue, I was able to establish the narrative voice as that of the seventeen-year-old Ditty at a defining moment.
Secondly, beginning with the point of climax is an almost guaranteed way to arouse the reader’s interest, as it provides a taste of the tension and conflict to come. It reveals the story’s central dilemma – even though it’s not until later that the reader is able to place it in context, to understand that Ditty’s parents have just found out that she has been deceiving them for the past five years; she has disobeyed them by attending dance classes when they’ve forbidden her to do so, and has violated the Sabbath and other religious commandments. Ditty realizes, once and for all, that her double life cannot continue. She can be part of her family – or she can live as a dancer. She cannot do both, and this is the dilemma that lies at the heart of the story. The opening foreshadows this dilemma, promising to explore it.
In hindsight, it’s easy to analyze why I began the way I did – and why it works. But the truth is, I experimented with many different beginnings, and it wasn’t until I knew my characters and had a strong idea of the where the story was headed that I was able to write the opening the story required.
Here are some other openings:
1. THE DECLARATION, by Gemma Malley:
“11 January, 2140
My name is Anna.
My name is Anna and I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t exist.”
So much information in so few words. Already we know that this is Anna’s story, set in the future. Already we are wondering: Why shouldn’t Anna exist? We want to read on.
2. SAVING FRANCESCA, by Melina Marchetta
“This morning, my mother didn’t get out of bed.”
A simple sentence, but it does raise the question, ‘Why not?’ An apt beginning for a story about a girl whose mother is suffering from depression.
3. GRACE, by Morris Gleitzman
“In the beginning there was me and Mum and Dad and the twins.
And good luck was upon us and things were great and talk about happy families, we were bountiful.
But it came to pass that I started doing sins.
And lo, that’s when all our problems began.”
What we notice first is the highly original voice – childish and Biblical. It’s the voice of a girl raised in a very insular religious cult. Kept away from modern life and anyone outside the cult, the language she uses is heavily influenced by the linguistically outdated Bible. This opening also tells us about the narrator’s family and lets us into her psyche – she has done something wrong, or thinks she has. But what?
There are many different kinds of openings. The good ones raise questions. They hint at conflict and keep the reader turning the pages. And writing them depends on knowing what comes later. As the renowned French thinker and writer, Blaise Pascal, famously said: “The last thing one knows when writing a book is what to put first.”
About the Author
Robyn Bavati lives in Melbourne, Australia. Dancing in the Dark is her debut novel. Her next novel, Pirouette, will be out in November.
Check Out Robyn's Webpage
Friend Robyn on Facebook
When Ditty Cohen first sees a ballet on TV, the beautiful, gravity-defying dancing captivates her.
She’s instantly connected to the graceful performers, realizing her passion is to be a dancer. There’s just one problem: Ditty is from an ultra-orthodox Jewish family and her parents forbid her to take dance lessons.
Refusing to give up on her newfound love, Ditty starts dancing in secret. Her devotion to dance is matched only by her talent, but the longer Ditty pursues her dream, the more she must lie to her family. Caught between her passion and her faith, Ditty starts to question everything she believes in. How long can she keep her two worlds apart? And at what cost?
DANCING IN THE DARK is the dramatic, inspiring story about a girl who discovers the trials and triumphs of pursuing her greatest dream.
Buy DANCING IN THE DARK on Amazon
Find DANCING IN THE DARK on Goodreads