"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop." Lewis Carroll makes it sound so simple.
Thing is, where is the beginning? Where does any real story start? And in fiction, where should you choose to start it?
Although it was a blog-reader or two who asked me to talk about beginnings, it’s also a sore point for me because I’ve been struggling with a beginning of a new novel. Sometimes the beginning is the easiest bit – in fact, we’d probably agree that usually the beginning is the easiest bit. It’s certainly the most important bit, because if it’s not good enough no one will get to read the middle or end.
I think there are three aspects of beginnings that we need to look at. [God I sound serious / pompous today.]
- When to start
- How to start
- Things to avoid
1. When in the story should I start?
Simple: start at the point of the story which will hook the readers and draw them in quickly.
This could be with a flashback or a much earlier event which triggered the main narrative. Examples are Kate Atkinson’s brilliant latest novel, When Will There Be Good News? and [if you don’t mind my mentioning my own books but they are the ones I seem to know most about] Fleshmarket, by me. Both start with a shocking event which happened years before the main story. Both also enable a childhood event to be related, with a child’s POV, but then for the main narrative to be from a more interesting and sustainable viewpoint than a child’s.)
Or it could be a flashforward, but only if relevant. You can’t contrive a flashforward: it must be intrinsic. And, you have to be careful because you risk giving the game away. I used this device in The Passionflower Massacre and it is also how The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, my favourite book in the world, starts.
Or it may not be an earlier event, but simply "in medias res". Jump right in with a compelling episode; get right to the point. This is the method with fewer drawbacks. Perhaps the most common way to start and one which readers find most comfortable?
Or you might decide to begin with backstory /scene-setting straightaway. Clearly this has got to be very carefully done and the back story has to be compelling enough. Never start this way just because you feel the need to explain things – only start this way because you think that’s what’s going to draw the reader in most compellingly.