“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about linearity and the different points of entry into a story. We experience time in a linear fashion. Telling a story from the beginning and following, step by step, through until the end seem like the natural way to go about it. However, very often a story starts off slowly. The building of circumstance and tension are incremental and so approaching stories by starting at the beginning can tax the reader’s patience. I can’t remember how often it has taken me several attempts to get past the first 50 pages of a novel because, although I realize the story is building towards something, it’s just taking too damn long and I’m not in the mood to be patient. Other times, I’m very happy to be led along and climb that slow upward grade.
It really does depend on the story. Not just what the story is, but how it’s told. Let me offer you an example:
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
This is the opening sentence of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (if you haven’t read it, you should). Set in a dystopian future, the government has banned the reading and possession of all books. Books, they have decided, are a social evil that makes people dissatisfied with the boring but livable lives they have. Books are dangerous because they make us dreamers, because they make us ponder alternatives. The story is told, primarily, from the point of view of a single ‘Fireman’, whose job it is to seek out illicit books and burn them, so the story arc follows his experience from burner of books, to illicit reader of them. It’s the story of one man’s rebellion, and so the story starts at the very dawn of his journey of change.
“124 was spiteful.”
Toni Morrison’s Beloved starts, in some ways, towards the end of the story. This makes what came before it a mystery for the reader to discover. The book opens with an horrific scene of the main protagonist’s attempt to save her dogs life, after it has been almost fatally brutalized by what we are let to believe is a malevolent spirit in the house. Who the spirit belongs to, whether it’s real or imagined, and how the protagonist and her family came to be burdened with it are explored as flashbacks. How she is finally rid of it becomes the conclusion of the tale. Of course, it would have been possible to start this story with Sethe’s (the main character) experience as a slave, but that would make the magical realism aspect of the story harder to accept. Because the story is not about slavery itself but what slavery does people’s construction of their own identities, the half-light world of a haunting is the perfect way to examine an inner landscape rather than an historical set of events.
I don’t want to compare my own writing with that of the brilliance those that I’ve mentioned above, but I do want to show you that the dilemma of where to start a story is relevant to all writers. I have a tendency to begin the telling of my stories a little way in. But I’ve noticed that some of my best pieces don’t start there. Click starts, in a way, years before the story does. Blindness opens right at the point of conflict. Gaijin starts at the first point of consequence, long after the initial events that start the story into motion.
I should be far more strategic than I am in where I start my stories. The ones I’m proudest of are often those where I have really taken the time to make a conscious decision NOT to start at the beginning and NOT to start where I’m naturally inclined to do so. But this requires me to formulate at least a rough outline of the plot, damn it.
Where do you start your stories?