I was on a panel once that was taking questions from the audience, and a guy raised his hand and asked how to know when to start a new chapter. He said he’d written hundreds of pages, and it was only chapter one. A silence fell over the room as the audience waited with rapt attention and those of us on the panel had no idea how to respond to that. Without seeing that guy’s manuscript, I was certain his problem was he hadn’t found the beginning of his story yet.
To the guy’s credit, he’d started writing his novel, and that’s admirable. Moreover, he’d started doing the work, and that’s progress.
I don’t remember how we, the panel, responded to him, but the point here is, again, without seeing that manuscript, I would expect to find pages and pages and pages of world building and information about characters, places, customs, traditions, etc. That stuff is important, but it’s not the story.
Finding the starting line is a very common problem for us writers because we are (and this is true—unless you’re using generative AI, which is bad and I’m going to get to someday) human beings, and it’s natural for human beings, when beginning any creative process, to search for information. Even legal cases start with a discovery process. As storytellers, we begin by asking questions like, Who is this person? What is this place? We build a foundation.
I’m here to tell you, while that stuff is incredibly important and you need to work on it because everything rests on it, the story starts elsewhere.
More to the point, readers have another question writers need to answer:
Why am I reading this?
The trouble we writers face is that writing is a generative process in its own right. In other words, we think on the page, and in so doing, we learn as we write. We discover.
It’s okay to start writing a story by asking who the person is you’re writing about or what the world is like, but you will need to clean that stuff up to find the starting line for your story. Most writers (even seasoned vets) suffer from an inability or unwillingness to let go of written material that just isn’t serving the story. The trouble we writers face that other creatives don’t is the evidence of our process often remains on the page. Musicians record new tracks. Painters paint over mistakes. Writers just sort of accumulate words.
So many words.
I’ll write about that (killing darlings, finding the story’s heart, etc.) later, but for now, we’re looking for where the story begins. You don’t have to nuke anything yet. In fact, save everything you write. Copy and paste it at the bottom of your document. Put it in another document. Or maybe your writing software has a repository for this stuff (I don’t know; I don’t use any fancy writing software).
Here it is. This is how you find the starting line.
After you’ve done the work of understanding who the character(s) is and where they are, ask this absolutely crucial question:
Why does this story start today and not tomorrow or yesterday?
This seems like a plot question, but I promise you it isn’t. Certainly, we often refer to it as the inciting event, but an event need not be one the character responds to. It can be an active decision.
Plot and character usually go hand in hand. The character makes a decision and makes something happen, or something happens and the character makes a decision. In this way, plot and character are often inextricable—a point worth considering if you’re a writer who either struggles with plot or character, as I know most writers do.
More directly, ask:
What decision does my character make today or what event does my character have to respond to that will ripple through the next dozen pages or more?
The starting line for your story is there, and usually, when we find it, we discover we need less information than we thought. Focus on that starting line. There’s a reason why I chose a picture (above) in which a runner hasn’t started running yet. When you’re looking for the starting line, you’re still preparing to get going, and that work may include getting to know your character(s) or building your world. Once you know where your story begins, sift through the conceptual work you’ve done with character, setting, world building, etc., and include only that which the reader needs to get going. The trick, then, is ensuring the rest falls into place and you keep anticipating reader questions and feeding them sufficient information to make the story work. That will be a topic for a future post.
Okay, the principle is set. Let’s look at some examples.
At the beginning of Stephen King’s The Stand, a sprawling epic post-apocalyptic story with interweaving narratives, we find a short tale about the man responsible for releasing the virus: a security guard at a government facility who escapes with his family. This character doesn’t have long to live, to nobody’s surprise, so why did King choose to start here? This is when the virus gets out, of course, which is essential to the plot, but what’s interesting is this character is a family man, and he reckons the lives of his wife and child are worth risking the lives of everyone else. In this way, King uses character to suggest the human capacity for love is actually a vulnerability. He could have started this apocryphal apocalyptic novel later, but he didn’t because he liked the tone this set. Starting it earlier, well, this is a novel about a virus, and there’s no virus before this moment, so…
How about another flu-apocalypse? Thirty-plus years later, Emily St. John Mandel chose to begin her nonlinear end-of-the-world tale Station Eleven with an actor who dies from a heart attack on stage while performing in King Lear. Why start here? What relevance does this have to the rest of the story? This is a novel about a virus, but there’s no virus in this scene. What was she thinking? Mandel comes back to this character and this event many times through the novel to address those very questions, as if she wrote her interwoven narrative specifically to justify that choice—and it works, in part, because she focuses on that starting line, why the story begins that day and not the day before or the day after. It’s because this isn’t just a novel about a virus after all. It’s about a group of people and that which connects them regardless of the state of the world, and this actor on stage dying from a heart attack is the center of that nexus.
Celeste Ng chose to start her novel Little Fires Everywhere in the aftermath of the story’s climax. What does that do? It poses a mystery: who’s responsible for the house fire? However, by starting in that moment, Ng shows us the story is going somewhere. We get a glimpse at the future, and by doing that, Ng generates huge capital in reader attention. The lesson here: when in doubt, start with a fire.
Okay, I’m half serious.
Neal Stephenson begins his monstrous sci-fi epic Seveneves with an astrophysicist witnessing the obliteration of the moon. Why a physicist? No character understands the consequences of the moon’s destruction better than a physicist, so the reader gets the stakes right off the bat. Plus, without the moon’s destruction, nothing else in this novel would happen. It’s the event that not only radiates for dozens of pages but literally for thousands of years.
Andy Weir begins The Martian with a panicked Mark Watney confessing to the reader that he’s going to die. Why there? Because this is the moment Mark decides he’s going to survive. Interestingly, we don’t get the storm where his crew leaves him until a third of the way through the book. In Ridley Scott’s film, however, we begin with that. Why? Because Scott wanted to tell the crew’s story, too, and that’s the moment where their stories diverge.
Look, I can do this all day long, but it’s your turn now.
Scan your bookshelf. Pull down the books you love and read their beginnings. Or turn to your favorite films. (Probably best to leave video games out of the conversation for now, since most games necessarily begin with gameplay introduction considerations.) Why does the story start there? Why not the day before or the day after? What decision or event happens in those first few pages that echoes through the rest of the story?
Analyze four or five of your favorites. Try to figure out why the story starts where it does. What decision does a character make, or what event occurs, that ripples through the following pages if not the whole book? Could the author have started elsewhere? How would that change the story’s focus? Would it?
Once you’ve done that, think about your own story? Why did you start where you did? Does a character make a decision that ripples through subsequent pages? Does an event happen that leaves the world reeling? Or, does nothing of much consequence happen and, instead, we’re exploring characters and setting? If that’s the case, you may have a problem with where your story begins. Keep looking for that starting line, and see how a focus on that significant event or decision alters the focus of the tale.
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