The first post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work.
This week, we’re looking at beginnings, and where to find them.
Every story, we’re told, must have a beginning, middle and an end.
The problem, of course, comes from finding them. And the beginning can often be particularly elusive, especially if this is your first novel (or even your third).
Asking yourself where does my story begin is a bit of a trick question.
You might find yourself spiralling down a million rabbit holes, rather like that scene in Benjamin Button where a series of complicated and unlikely events all had to align in order for a character (I won’t spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it) to leave the dance studio at precisely the wrong time.
Asking yourself where does my story begin will likely lead to you working backwards. Thinking about your protagonist, and where the story began for them. Of course, any good protagonist has a good backstory, and any good backstory haunts any good protagonist. But does that mean that’s where we should start?
Does the story start with your character getting the braces that means they’re cruelly ridiculed, which means they reject advancements or offers of friendship for fear of them being false, which means when the handsome stranger starts staring at them in the supermarket they run away? Is the beginning of our story all the way back there?
I think the problem lies in the very question itself. If we change the question, we can find a much quicker, simpler answer on where to start our story.
A quick way to find your story’s beginning
Instead of asking yourself where does this story begin, try asking yourself what changes. At the beginning of every story, we have a protagonist living in their normal world. And then something, a debt collection letter, the death of a loved one, a break-up, a chance meeting, sparks a dominoe that will take the reader down the rabbit hole with you.
So the question is not where does this story begin but rather what is the first change? What is the first event in a sequence of events?
Instead of asking yourself “where does the story begin”, try asking yourself “what changes?” What sparks the first domino in the series of events?Tweet
Finding ‘the change’
Let’s say you want to write a novel about a widow called Rosie who, in getting to grips with losing her wife, discovers her wife had a secret that threatened to change everything she thought she knew.
In this story, what would the change point be? What would the beginning of Rosie’s story truly be?
Would it be when Rosie met Jane? Would it be their first date in a carpark, or when Jane proposed to her in the rain?
Or would it be the moment she discovers the locked drawer? Would it be the moment that she realises that her wife even has a locked drawer?
There is a difference between your beginning and your character’s backstory. Rosie’s backstory (likely something whereby she’s triggered by betrayal and deceit) is important, but it’s not where the story starts. The reader doesn’t want to go back in her history and trace her family tree.
The reader wants to find out what’s in that darned drawer!
You’ll find your beginning where you find the change
If you’re still having trouble finding your opening, try working backwards. Think about where your novel will end.
Now go back to the Benjamin Button scene, and use the “If X hadn’t happened, Y would have never…” to try and trace your way back to your beginning.
Let’s say the novel ends with Rosie burning all the photographs of her and Jane, and throwing her wedding ring into the ocean. What was the first step to that happening?
Now let’s go back to the backstory dump we discussed right at the beginning and take one of the events, let’s say their first date in the carpark. Now, let’s test it and see if this is the beginning by putting it into this “If X hadn’t happened…” format:
“If Rosie and Jane had not had their first date in a car park, Rosie would never have discovered the truth”
This doesn’t really make sense. They’re not casually linked in a direct sense, their first date in the carpark doesn’t lead Rosie directly to the secret she discovers about Jane. They could have had their first date in Bermuda – the first date, on its own, is not what leads her to discovering the truth.
The locked drawer is – and we can see that when we use the same formula to test it.
“If Rosie had not found the locked drawer, Rosie would never have discovered the truth”
Now this accruate. It makes complete sense as a place where the story could begin.
What if I find more than one beginning?
Sometimes, it’s hard finding one good beginning.
Other times, we manage to find ourselves lucky enough to find two good beginnings.
Take the story above for example. Using the same formula you could even take this one back a further step: If Jane had not died, Rosie would never have discovered the truth. That’s as good a place to start as the locked drawer, isn’t it?
So which one should you choose?
In short, I recommend choosing the most immediate one, the one with the most direct link to the dominos. Play that storyline forwards and run the second beginning alongside it or as an overlay.
For example, let’s say we open with Rosie opening the drawer. She could have a flashback of Jane sitting at the desk, her glasses sliding down her nose. As long as the reader feels the Jane’s ghost in the room we don’t necessarily need to sit with Rosie through the death and the funeral, we can overlay it.
In short: when to begin your novel
Begin your novel from the first moment of change. It should be the first dominoe that falls in the arc of our overall story, the first step that, without which, the conclusion would not make sense. You should be able to say the following sentence and for it to make sense: “If [opening scene] had not happened, then [main character] would have never [closing scene]”
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