In the Middle.

When I have a story that needs to be written, I know my outcome. In fact, usually the whole purpose of the tale is to reach this end. My road along the way is hazy, and many characters will introduce themselves to me. When a draft is done, and it is time to edit, it is beginnings that I struggle with.

I am not talking about first sentences, and opening hooks. Rather, where does a story start?

As I was thinking about this today, trying to decide how to re-write the beginning of a short,Β  I realized that I have this problem because I feel there are no true beginnings. It dawned on me that I had to decide where the story should begin to be told, instead of where it actually began.

I noticed that all my stories seem to begin in the middle. There is no pre-amp, no ‘hi, how do you do?’. Then, of course, I began to wonder if there any true endings, but I’ll leave that for another day.

How do you determine where you story should begin?

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37 thoughts on “In the Middle.

  1. It is funny that you post a topic on this subject as I was just thinking about it yesterday.

    You’ll have to forgive me, I forget who said it, but someone alot more famous then me said “start as close to the end as possible.” I’ll try to find where I have it quoted and give the speaker his due, but I have alot of papers in alot of different places.

    I also personally feel that it is just good writing practice to start in the middle of a story. If you go back way too far it and fill in all the little details you risk having your story read like a biography. I’ve read several books that start at the beginning and give you all the backstory right there for chapters and chapters before the story ever even starts to take off. It makes for rather boring chapters in my opinion.

    With my own pieces, and from the sound of things you like to do the same, I try to start right in the middle and find subtle and interesting ways to fill in the backstory that is important.

    Sooo, to answer your question, it depends on what I’m writing, but I’ll always try to start right in the middle of the action and go from there.

    • What was it you said, great minds thinks alike? LOL
      Thank you for this, Andrew, it re-enforces what I was thinking. Start as close to the end as possible…it does make sense. Only include the stuff that is part of the immediate story, why would we need anything else, right?

  2. I usually end up writing a “Hello how are you?” and then write to the story. And then in editing I delete the Hello. To really hook readers I think you need to start later than Hello, where things are happening, and let them get to know the character through action and later development. Trying to force them to like a character before anything has even happened is like trying to convince a friend they’ll just love the blind date you found for them because they have a good sense of humour and they like animals… honest.

    • Hi, Jen! Good analogy. Thank you. Sometimes I get caught up with how much I need to include so that the reader will get a clear picture, without being too boring and laying it all out. I suppose that each reader will generate their own version of the story/character anyhow… it’s all about a beautiful balance, and finding it…

  3. I love the suggestion – start as close to the end as possible. I’ve heard “start in the middle of the action”, but I like this better.

    I also tend to start with “hello how are you”, write to the starting point, then cut later.

    I read a quote recently, like Andrew, can’t recall where. It was something to the effect of “there is no beginning or ending to a story, just the place where you enter and leave …” It may have been in a novel or short story, not a book about writing. Sound familiar to anyone?

    • Cathryn, that does sound vaguely familiar, but it could just be my mind stretching. That is a really great quote, thanks for sharing it. It sums up my own feelings on stories quite well.

      I did my homework and it was Kurt Vonnegut that said “Start as close to the end as possible.” I agree with him and think that is very good advice.

  4. It took me a long time to figure out where to start my book. After many drafts and re-written chapters. In the end I went back to where I had originally started the book, and turfed two good chapters. Oh well, now I have a prequel.

    • A prequel, Patti! There you go!
      I am having the same difficulty with my first novel. I take out. Put in. And repeat. My second novel does not have that problem. Some shorts I write the same, others not. I greatly dislike when the pieces are just not falling into place, I don’t like forcing things…sometimes though it takes time before it lays itself straight.

  5. I found it … “No One You Know” by Michelle Richmond. I bungled the quote badly, but the essence is the same.

    The narrator quotes a writing instructor, so I don’t know if this originated with her novel or not, but here’s the quote:

    “There is no such thing as a perfect ending, no such thing as an infallible narrative map. ‘Arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.'”

      • I totally agree with what you say about thinking of peoples comments while working. Since, I just recently got into the blogging community, I am so amazed I went so long without it. It has been really insightful and incredibly helpful for me to finally communicate with other writers and get some point of views different from my own.

        Up until I started blogging, I was feeling isolated and alone. Thanks to great people like you ,Jennifer, I’ve realized that is certainly not the case. Thanks much.

        Also thank you for the well wishes, I’ll try to check in while I’m away, but I can say for fairly certain I won’t be updating my blog this week.

      • It is wonderful, isn’t it Andrew? As writers, we can be so isolated. It really helps to have a community, even an on-line one! Talk to you soon!

  6. vanyieck says:

    I’ve had a similar thought. Any story is simple part of a greater narrative. Inevitably I’m forced to widen the story if for no other reason than to expand my own understanding of the characters.

    • Thank you Vanyieck for adding to the conversation!
      Do you find then, that you begin with a small idea that turns into a larger piece of work?
      Personally, I work the other way around, deleting extra filler. On my first novel I deleted about 100 pages, bringing the word count down to around 80,000.
      I love how this blog lets me learn about all the many ways of writers. I will read something from a comment, and find it entering my mind while working!

      • vanyieck says:

        My stories usually start with a simple idea that expands to create a story (or novel). I enjoy exploring situations with my characters and discovering what transpires.

        I do have a blog. Here’s the url. I have a sample of one of my short stories on that site.:

        http://vanyieck.wordpress.com/

      • Thank you, Vanyieck. I also love getting to know my characters! And sometimes, when I am editing, I come across something I wrote early in the draft and I think how silly of me – X is certainly nothing like that πŸ™‚
        I’ll be over to visit!

  7. I thought about this for a while. At first I was going to say you should start with the problem that the main character needs to resolve. Many writers do this, particularly in screenplays. But I always struggle with beginnings too and keeping digging back further and further. Then I remembered Boule de Suif, one of Guy de Maupassant’s best stories. The problem for the main character in this story is whether or not she should sleep with the Prussian officer and so let the stagecoach full of respectable French refugees continue on its way unmolested. But this problem is held back for as long as possible and we are treated to a long, leisurely and masterful description of the fragmented French army retreating through Rouen, the slow progress of the stagecoach, the characteristics of each of its occupants, the inclement weather and the devastation of the French countryside. Even when the stagecoach is forced to stop we do not at first learn why. The gradual elucidation of the problem is part of the appeal of this story. We wait, with the passengers, in a state of tension. And when we discover what is going on, we feel all the more deeply the discomfort of Mademoiselle Elisabeth Rousset and the unbearable indignity of her position. The story is full of subtle little shocks and ironies that need time to emerge. So I think you must begin wherever the story demands you begin; and that depends on the story that you wish to tell.

  8. I’m one who likes a tiny bit of backstory. I definitely starts where *I* feel the story starts–the point where if it started any later you’d be missing out, but if you started any earlier you’d be bored..
    But I do start with backstory. Almost always.
    In stories, I can keep it pared down a bit as my brain seems to have some sort of filter that knows my wordcount.. But with my book, I wrote a lot that I ended up tossing. The benefit is that I got to know my character better that way.
    It’s said that a writer should know 95% more about the story than the reader, and this helped me develop that story. I needed the help as I’d never written anything over 50pp before..

    I suppose it’s different for everyone, but if what you’re doing works, I’d say stick with it. The way you write has the benefit of not having too much backstory, which a lot of people don’t have the patience for. As long as you can weave in the necessary parts without them seeming cumbersome, then you seem to be ahead of a lot of the pack!!

  9. The first written line of my current project now falls about 1/2 way through the story. I wrote a scene and then worked backward until I found a natural entry point and called it good. Not very scientific, but it got me writing without being stumped for weeks over a good opening salvo.

  10. I have the worst time with beginnings. I know neither one of my novels begins with what I thought was the beginning. I’m just trying to think if a single story does either.

    I do think you’re going about this the right way–writing the story and then in the revision process, trying to think of the best way to tell this particular story.

    I agree with Joseph. think it’s a new challenge with each story.

  11. The completed ms I have now has undergone many a re-write, yet my beginning hasn’t clicked for me yet. I’m worried it never will. I would like to begin the query process but hold back everytime I’m close due to my insecurity of my first chapter. Yikes.

    • Oh, Tricia, do I know this feeling!
      I just had to go for it – and I was surprised with how positive things progressed….yet, still nagging ‘should that be there?’ ‘maybe it’s wrong?’ ‘ahhhh!!!’

  12. I have written my novel with two very different starting points. Now I’m thinking that somewhere in the middle of those two is best–I may have too much backstory. I’m going to let the draft cool and then decide.

    In my first book, which is nonfiction (bereavement book for grandparents), I ended up lopping off the first three chapters to get to the “right” beginning.

    When my husband works on plays, he works out a lot in his head before he commits to the page, but I seem to be one of these people who needs to rewrite…a lot!!

    • HI, Nadine and thanks for sharing! Beginnings are the most difficult part for me. I know those writers who sit and work on one single sentence sometimes for days at a time. When they move on, they know they don’t have to come back to it again. I am not that – I re-write, again and again!

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