Invite a Stranger to a Party
A craft technique from Charles Baxter
This week, I listened to a recording of a lecture delivered by Charles Baxter in August at Bread Loaf. (I applied this year and did not get in, but guess what? They share recordings of most of the readings and lectures and you’d better believe I am slowly making my way through them while chopping sweet potatoes and dressing salads.)
Baxter’s lecture is called We Were Strangers: The Stranger and Strangeness as Fictional Necessities and I will not do it justice here so definitely listen to the whole thing if this sounds interesting, but one of the things he says is that, as a writer, it’s smart to employ a stranger at the beginning of a story or novel because they can act as proxy for the reader, allowing you to avoid relaying crucial information as tedious exposition; instead, the reader discovers this new place or these new people along with the stranger, through the stranger’s eyes, organically and in scene.
Baxter goes on to suggest, if you’ve got a big, potentially confusing cast, beginning with a party where everyone is there, the way The Godfather begins with a wedding. Place your stranger at the party and have someone give them the rundown, the way Michael Corleone does with his girlfriend Kay, who’s just meeting his family.
I love this idea so much that I am planning to go back to the beginning of the pond novel and turn the opening scene into a party. We already have a stranger in the book, so all I need to do is get him an invite.
Speaking of the novel, it’s moving along. We’re in the messy middle, but there is lots of momentum. For this reason, rewriting the beginning must wait until the first draft is done… but it’s neat to already have a revision plan forming.