Begin in Clarity, End in Mystery


Former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, wrote an essay about “accessibility” in his introduction to the anthology 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Everyday. He says to begin in clarity and end in mystery. He was speaking about poetry, but his insights are very applicable to fiction, and explain the brilliance of Blade Runner. Here are the best parts:

 

Cited repeatedly in book blurbs, "accessible"  has become a praise word used loosely to mean poetry that can be readily understood. The trouble with using the term broadly is that it can apply equally to the collected works of Mother Goose as well as to many of the poems of Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds...

 

In a more helpful application of the term, I would suggest, "accessible" would mean "easy to enter," like a building. An accessible poem has a clear entrance, a front door through which the reader may pass into the body of the poem whose overall "accessibility" —i.e., availability of meaning—remain to be seen and may vary widely. This more restricted use of the word would remove it from the stone-throwing argument between the camp of Clarity and the camp of Difficulty and require those combatants to come up with more specific and illuminating terms. After all, we may not be able to concur on the aesthetic worth of an architectural structure, but we can all agree that the building is either open or locked.

If you need to cut an entrance into a poem, who is going to bother? Why should the reader be asked to commit repeated acts of breaking and entering?

My preference [for poems] has more to do with the pleasure that is to be derived from a person’s power to convey a reader from one place to another, its capacity for imaginative travel. My question is: If a poem has no clear starting place, how can it go anywhere? If a poem does not begin in lucidity, how can it advance into the mysterious?

the best poems begin in clarity and end in mystery; they begin with the obvious and then move toward the realms of inscrutability… If every line in a poem were equally clear, we would be deprived of the ambiguities and secrets that poetry has always been the best means of exploring; if every line were illegible, we would have no ground to stand on.  (Collins xiv-xxii)

 

The best fiction too begins in clarity and ends in mystery. This is what separates a great story from a simply good story. The example that makes this obvious is Blade Runner. Because the film is set in the future, the details of the world and its people are unfamiliar, but a familiar premise provides us with a clear entrance: a detective chasing fugitives. At the beginning of the movie, we learn androids have murdered a number of people and are hiding somewhere in Los Angeles. Deckard, a cop played by Harrison Ford, is tasked with hunting them down.

By the end of movie however, the story has moved into the realm of the enigmatic, with the religious-like martyring of an android and questions about what makes someone human—questions to which the film does not provide answers.

 

In our own writing, we should strive to achieve the same results: Provide our readers with an obvious entrance into the story and then take them into the mysterious and the intangible. Begin in clarity and end in mystery.

 

However, if the beginning of a story is confusing (when are we? where are we? who are these people? what's going on?) then readers become frustrated, ask the question "where is this story going?" and then decide the answer is "nowhere" and stop reading.