I haven’t yet read Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending. It’s coming up for one of my book groups later in the year, so I’m saving it . However, yesterday I overheard someone saying that a letter plays an important part in the plot and that made me stop and listen because the same is true of the book I am reading at the moment, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Indeed, in that case the entire plot is initiated by the arrival of a letter and the reaction it prompts in the eponymous Mr Fry.
Most stories require an incident that disturbs the status quo to get them started. Something has to happen to shake the characters involved out their everyday existence or why would we want to hear about them. When I was teaching, the children would call this the kick off point. (The technical term is the inciting moment, but kick off point sounds more like a game of football and as any teacher knows, you need to keep the lads on board.). However, the same kick off point can lead to any number of variations in the case of a game of football and the same is true for a story. What does that letter contain? Is it an invitation, a threat, good news, bad news? The possibilities are endless.
I once suggested to a class that we all take the arrival of a letter as the kick off point for a story just to see how many variations we got. It wasn’t long after the Ahlbergs’ wonderful picture book, The Jolly Postman, came out, so most of them actually wrote the letter, popped it into an envelope and stuck it in their essay books. We had party invitations, announcements of grand prize wins, threatening letters and my favourite which was a ransom demand. This was also at the height of popularity of those books that asked the reader to make a descison at the end of each paragraph and then directed them to a specific part of the story to continue the narrative. If you decide to pay the ransom read paragraph two, directed the instructions. If you decide to ignore the letter go to paragraph five. Bloodthirsty as only a ten year old boy can be, it was perfectly possible to get to the end of this particular story and find a dead body waiting for you.
I have a nasty feeling that the same is going to true of Mr Fry, but please don’t tell me if that is the case. I’m enjoying the journey far too much. What you could tell me, however, is whether or not there are other books that start in this way. I’d rather like to make a collection of them.