Taking Steps -- Setting a Story Into Motion
by Bill Johnson
A review of the opening chapter of The Last Unicorn, by Peter Beagle.
Good stories create a journey a story's audience can share. One aspect of creating a journey is taking a first step. When the first chapter of a novel takes that first step, the storytelling demonstrates an ability to create a story journey. Some writers struggle because a first chapter is not a step forward, but an introduction of characters, settings, and plot. I'm going to use several paragraphs from The Last Unicorn to demonstrate how Peter Beagle created a compelling, engaging first step in a story journey.
The title of the novel raises several questions: why is there only one unicorn left? Will it survive? A good title can raise or suggest a dramatic question that draws in readers.The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.
This first sentence suggests a story about being all alone in the world, an issue that resonates with many people.
She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
First the introduction of an issue for the unicorn, then a lyrical physical description. Some hunters pass through the unicorn's forest, and from evesdropping the unicorn learns that she is probably the last of her kind. This sets up in her a state of narrative tension, as she wonders if she is indeed the last unicorn, of if the others were waiting for her?But when she stopped running at last and stood still, listening to crows and a quarrel of squirrels over her head, she wondered. But suppose they are hiding together, somewhere far away? What if they are hiding and waiting for me? From that first moment of doubt, there was no peace for her; from the time she first imagined leaving her forest, she could not stand in one place without wanting to be somewhere else. She trotted up and down beside her pool, restless and unhappy. Unicorns are not meant to make choices. She said no, and yes, and no again, day and night, and for the first time she began to feel the minutes crawling over her like worms. "I will not go. Because men have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean they have all vanished. Even if it were true, I would not go. I live here."
A character is in a state of narrative tension when he or she feels compelled to act, but with compelling reasons not to act, and acting increases the tension. A novel with a main character who is not in a state of narrative tension risks not being dramatically compelling.
Under the moon, the road that run from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead sh took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
The unicorn has taken the first step of her journey. She doesn't just make the decision, but takes that step. Many stories have both this physical journey and a journey toward the resolution of an issue of human need, or the illumination and exploration of ideas.
On her journey, the unicorn meets a man who confuses her for a horse.
Sometimes she thought, "If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it." But she knew beyond both hope and vanity that men had changed, and world with them, because the unicorns were gone. Yet she went on along the hard road, although each day she wished a little more that she had never left her forest.
This raises the stakes in the story, that what's happening is not just about a solidary unicorn, but about the larger world; that if this last unicorn is lost, something fundamental about this world will be lost. Some writers struggle because they don't set up something to be at stake in the larger world of their stories.
And, the narrative tension continues to increase for the unicorn.
The unicorn meets a silly butterfly who sings silly songs, but just before leaving, the butterfly reveals to the unicorn,
"You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints. Let nothing dismay you, but don't be half-safe." His wings brushed against the unicorn's skin.
Now the unicorn knows what happened to the other unicorns, but not where to find them. She now has a clue to what happened, but the clue frames larger questions: Where did the Red Bull take the other unicorns, can she find them, can she defeat the Red Bull?
Continuing, a carnival carvan led by Mama Fortuna, a wise woman, happens upon the sleeping unicorn. Knowing what she has found, she has a cage built around the unicorn to trap it. The first chapter ends with the unicorn waking. This sets up a powerful question, will this help or hinder the Unicorn in her quest?
The end of the chapter also suggests that the Magician, who is in conflict with Mama Fortuna, might become an ally of the unicorn.
To get the answer, a reader must turn the page and keep reading.
If Peter Beagle had started with an introduction of the unicorn, an introduction of the old man who mistook her for a horse, an introduction to the butterfly, and Mama Fortuna's carnival, then brought these characters together in the second chapter, that kind of first chapter would have been dramatically static. He choose instead to set the Unicorn on a journey where she meets characters who impact that journey.The Last Unicorn is a great example of how to introduce and set a story into motion in one chapter.