Where to Begin?

By Paul Roberts

In the 1965 movie, “The Sound of Music”, Julie Andrews tunefully remarks that “the very beginning” is “a very good place to start”. It may seem obvious that a story should commence in the same way, but as a thoughtful writer, I have often wondered whether an introductory passage might have been more immediately engaging if only it had begun somewhere – anywhere – else.

The opening episode of a book has one job to do: it must capture a reader’s attention. That’s especially important if they happen to be an agent or publisher and is as equally true of non-fiction as it is of fiction. Where we begin can have a huge impact on a reader’s immediate engagement. It may induce a feeling of excitement. It may playfully confuse them. It may make demands of their intellect. It may cause them to wonder not only where is this story going, but where has it come from?

For writers, changing where we begin our narrative can change where we end it. It can challenge the order or plotting of our work. It can reveal new ways of seeing characters. Best of all, in accessing a work through a window or back gate rather than the front door, both writer and reader are respectively challenged to create and explore the narrative from a fresh perspective.

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From the Dawn of Time

One of our earliest recorded texts, “The Bible”, begins quite literally “In the beginning”. Many writers since have related events in a chronological sequence. For example, the vast majority of autobiographies begin with the birth of the author. This is safe ground, offering a familiar structure, and providing a means by which to grow alongside the subject. This succeeds in bringing reader and writer together in a shared intimacy.

Science and speculative fiction are genres also served well with a traditional beginning that facilitates the reader’s instant immersion into a foreign environment. Who can forget the opening passage of George Orwell’s, “1984”? “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” This peculiar, imagined world is immediately real, allowing the reader to observe and experience Winston Smith’s transformation, rather than having to understand how the world arrived in such a state.

The Thick of It

Having said that Science Fiction can be unusual enough to require little tampering with the time continuum, it must also be said that the story has to be sufficiently engaging. If the chronological beginning of a story is dull, it doesn’t matter that it takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away”. There is a reason why Episode I of the Star Wars franchise was received so poorly. Here’s how the famous ‘opening crawl’ introduced the story: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events…” Bla bla bla. This is Brexit played out in space. We’re bored before it’s even begun. George Lucas knew that he would never get the chance to make a second movie if he began his Star Wars saga at the beginning.

Contrast this with “Episode IV – A New Hope”, the first of the franchise to be made in 1977. “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armoured space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet…” George Lucas had taken us in media res, or “into the middle of things”.

Writers since Homer have been doing exactly the same. The Odyssey is an early and fine example of ‘non-linear’ story telling, using flashbacks to flesh out details which, if related in a purely temporal order, would have failed to capture the reader’s attention at the outset. Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins in the middle, after the death of Hamlet’s father, allowing an exploration of revenge itself rather than what motivates it.

This is a technique worthy of consideration. If you feel that the historical start of your work is not the most engaging place to begin, find a passage in the book which is. Then, place it at the beginning and replot your narrative. It may take the form of a short passage which ultimately returns the reader to the beginning, allowing the story to continue as originally planned. Alternatively, it may so disturb the original plot as to reveal an entirely new approach.

Back to the Future

As a writer, you may consider the closing passage of your book to be its most precious. To a reader, the opposite is often true. Both parties may be satisfied if a book begins where it ends. There is something exciting about starting a book with some insight, overt or obscured, into its own conclusion. In 1823, Mary Shelley used this approach in “Frankenstein”. Daphne du Maurier offered a prelude in “Rebecca”. As long as it is not too demanding or obfuscating, it may help to create a relationship between the writer and reader within which an intimate secret is shared. And, as the reader nears the end, they see, as the writer planned, how the symmetry and circularity of the narrative has been achieved. It may bring great satisfaction for everyone.

Of course, a writer may be reluctant to offer up their carefully crafted ending so soon. They may worry that doing so will render the ending less satisfying, deprived of its impact. However, when handled carefully, the whole conclusion need not be given away completely, ensuring that the reader remains sufficiently motivated to see how everything comes together.

Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” is a wonderful example of a perfect execution, beginning with passages set in the future which are so enticing as to make the reader hungry to understand the journey towards the revelation. This is sustained throughout the story with further glimpses offered of a future state, even as the present unfolds.

To understand how you might utilise this in your own writing, imagine the approach applied to a traditional fairy tale. If the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” were to begin with the wolf being killed by the hunter’s axe as the heroine watches, the entire story might be seen afresh. The account has not been robbed of its conclusion. Rather, the conclusion has been brought forward to induce the reader’s greater interest in the characters’ motivations, what happened to bring them together, and what happens next.

The Power of the Author

Until someone invents a time machine, writers are the only people who can play with chronology. Choosing when a story will start is just as important as knowing when it will reach

The End

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