Begin at the beginning, not before

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” —Stephen King

Click to embiggen.

There’s a lot of really good advice out there about beginnings in fiction: how to write a good opening line, common traps to avoid, and so on. Unfortunately most of those articles and blog posts focus on the actual first sentence or paragraph, rather than the bigger question of where to begin the story. Because life seldom has clear-cut beginnings and endings, authors have to decide where to start and where to stop.

Years ago a friend shared an article from Writer’s Digest that referenced the old Krazy Kat newspaper comic strip, which had a running gag involving one of the characters getting hit in the head with a brick. The article said that the place to begin your story is the moment your protagonist his hit in the head metaphorically by the problem or conflict or riddle which forms the basis of the plot. The moment when the character realizes this is a big problem. The moment when the character discovers that this isn’t just going to be another day in her life.

I read a lot of amateur fiction, fan fiction, and rough drafts of other people’s work. And I’ve noticed that lots of people don’t understand that. They start the story long before the brick. They may still start the story when something disruptive happens in the character’s life, but it’s more like a moment that they character stumbled on a door step, days or weeks or months before the brick.

The worst are stories that end with the brick. We meet a character who is in a difficult situation. We meet some of the other characters in the protagonist’s life. Things happen and the situation gets worse. We see the character struggle with the issue, trying to figure out what’s really happening. The character attempts to get out of the bad situation a few ways, and either fails entirely or achieves a temporary relief that leads to a worse situation. And then there’s a big dramatic, shocking moment… and the story just stops. We’ve finally reach a point where the story has gotten really interesting, and the writing snaps the book closed and snatches the story, metaphorically, from our hands.

I just finished a story like that, where the character suffers through a lot, persevering through an unjust imprisonment and enduring various indignities, making a teeny bit of headway with one of the other prisoners, and then finally learning a little bit about one (and only one) of the mysteries the writer had been teasing us with for the entire story, and then that was it—an previously unseen character whose existence had been hinted at appears, causes a lot of damage, rescues the other prisoner and leaves. We get a denouement in which the protagonist is released, receives an apology of sorts from some of the authorities and goes. We never know what happened to any of the specific people responsible for the imprisonment, we never learn why a lot of the things that happened to the character happened, et cetera.

That’s not an ending, that’s an abandonment!

I know that someone will defend the author’s decisions by saying that we don’t always get all the answers in real life, and that bad people don’t always get what we think they deserve, and so on. But this isn’t real life. It’s fiction. The difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has the make sense. The author is free to tell and omit what he or she wants, yes, but never forget that it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. You may not want to tell the story about the mysterious character who rescues one of the others in the end for whatever reason. But by structuring the rest of the story this way, the author has teased the reader. Worse than that, the author has misled the reader. The author has laid out a lot of intriguing questions, sprinkle in some enticing tidbits, clearly implying that those breadcrumbs would lead to something interesting. And then the author didn’t deliver.

It’s a bait and switch.

Don’t get me wrong: leaving some things open-ended for the reader to debate and wrestle with is all right. But the conflict introduced the beginning needs to be resolved (by the protagonist’s own actions) at the end. Not solved, necessarily, but resolved. I failure to solve the problem is a resolution, after all.

This particular “story” isn’t actually a story, it’s the backstory to a story the author didn’t write. At least the way it is structured. It’s like. Sci fi story I read a long time ago in which a journalist is approached by a crackpot claiming people are being replaced by robots. The journalist doesn’t believe the guy at first, then various things happen that make it seem there might be something sinister going on, then the crackpot suddenly changes his tune, insisting he was mistaken and off his meds. The story ends with the journalist laying in bed, unable to sleep, something makes him check his wife for a heartbeat. And the final line of the story is that he can’t hear a heart beat in her chest, just a mechanical whirring!

It might have even ended with more than one exclamation point.

That wasn’t an ending, that was a beginning. Because the interesting tale isn’t that people don’t believe dangerous things are happening around them. The most interesting conflict is: what do you do when you find out your loved one has been replaced by an android?

Go back to the brick. Crackpots spout nonsense at people all the time. You don’t have to be a journalist to have some stranger come up to you and make extraordinary claims. Just stand at a bus stop on a busy bus line for a few hours and it will happen a lot. If you are a journalist, it must be even more common place. So that wasn’t a brick, it wasn’t even a stumble. It was business as usual. The brick was finding out the crackpot was correct. The story scould have begun with, “Everything fell apart night John discovered his wife had no heart. He had been chuckling to himself just before hand. A crazy man had contacted him, insisting he had proof of a conspiracy. John had known it had to be a delusion, despite all the evidence and the strange incidents that happened with the cars with darkened windows and mysterious sounds behind closed doors. He had only checked as a joke. It would make a funny story to share at the next cocktail party. But then he put the stenthoscope to her sleeping chest…”

And then you go from there. You don’t need all the back story. You can fill in details later, if needed. Fit the facts the reader needs to understand in dialog, that sort of thing.

Find the brick. Hit your character in the head. And then show us what she does about it!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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