What Did You Learn?

January 29, 2010

General Writing: Where to Start

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 4:14 pm

You know that song “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start?” Don’t believe it. Oftentimes in writing, the beginning isn’t the best start. Sometimes it’s the end, but usually it’s the middle. (The middle of a scene for example rather than the set up of person A and person B entered and then person C entered and they began a discussion and twenty minutes in said discussion reached something important.)

One of the things that people find really hard to do is start (whether it be an essay or a story). They want to make sure to give enough of a backstory so that the reader understands what is happening but not too much that there’s no surprise later. There are a few different things to consider:

1. At what point in the story should you begin?
2. What character should take the first scene?
3. How much information and setup do you need?

(There are others but these are some of the big ones.) I’m going to address each question separately:

1. At what point in the story should you begin?
Here I would say take a cue from the movies. Jump right into things. Think about a movie that immediately grabs your attention because someone is running for their life. That’s excitement. Of course, if your story doesn’t involve running for you life, you can’t exactly do that, but you could start somewhere interesting: a big fight, a break up, a kid running away from home or being introduced to drugs, the cops being called. (In Bones for example, we usually see the discovery of the body and in House we see the symptoms occur.)

2. What character should take the first scene?
This varies a little bit on the perspective through which you are writing the book. If you’re writing the book in first person, odds are that’s where you will have to start the book. (There is of course the option of a Prologue written in third person or a diary entry or letter, etc but those tend to slow things down a bit.) But what if you’re in third person? My general opinion is that you should start with the main character. The one exception is if there is a very important scene that sets up the events for the book. (For example, the Harry Potters tend to have a scene that Harry is not a part of and then follow him for the rest. That one scene usually sets up the events of the entire book and all the things that happen to Harry so that even though he isn’t technically in that first scene it is still ultimately about him.) But if you don’t have something supremely important that must be established before you get to the story, I recommend you start with the protagonist. It helps establish the connection between audience and narrative from the get go.

3. How much information and setup do you need?
As far as setup goes this also depends a bit on your story. A fantasy story will require much more information than one set in the world of the average reader. You don’t really want to go a hundred pages before the reader realizes there is magic. That’s frustrating and makes it harder to suspend the disbelief that surrounds magic. It has to feel ingrained in the book. But you don’t need to explain everything from the start. If you have the audience following a character as they discover a mystery about their past, you generally do not want the readers to know that mystery in the beginning. What fun is it to read about someone stumbling around to discover something you already know? Let the audience stumble with them. You only need as much information as allows the reader to understand the events. Otherwise, cut out the exposition and the explanation because it slows down the story.

The beginning is tough but the key is to really grab your readers in the beginning.


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