In the Beginning, I Had a False Start

In writing, as in life, a temporal beginning does not always make for the best beginning. Amateur, even professional, fiction writers tend to start a story at its chronological beginning. Because we think chronologically, our natural inclination is to begin a story with a character waking up from a dream or by introducing a stranger.

When we say “the beginning”, we usually mean a measure of time. Your date of birth marks the beginning of your life, your eyes opening mark the beginning of your day.

But the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to take action, “to begin”. I’m sure the moment you wake up isn’t the moment you feel most human. I usually don’t feel human until 10 AM.

In writing, as in life, a temporal beginning does not always make for the best beginning. Amateur, even professional, fiction writers – in their first drafts – tend to start a story at its chronological beginning. Because we think and remember chronologically, our natural inclination is to begin a story with a character waking up from a dream or by introducing the new stranger in town.

But those are not always the most interesting places to begin.

Of course, traditional narrative is linear, which means it moves from beginning to end. Think of your favorite novels or stories. How many begin at the temporal beginning? How many begin in the center of the action and then extend outward? How many begin at the end?

How can you find the beginning of your story? Just assume that the first beginning you write is going to be the wrong beginning. But you need to start somewhere! Don’t feel too badly about your false starts. You will write to discover your beginning, even if that happens 12 pages into what you’ve written.

One of the first things you should do, when you evaluate your rough draft, is ask yourself: where does this story really begin? If you write a 15-page story, you’ll probably be angry when you find your beginning at page 12.

Anything before the beginning usually deflates the story. Think of the story as a balloon you’re trying to fill with helium so that you can let it float. If you’re struggling with the story, you just can’t seem to fill that balloon with helium . It inflates then deflates, inflates then deflates. You are not good with the helium tank. You let out all the air. But once you find your beginning, the balloon inflates and grows steadily larger.

Just remind yourself – you would have never found your beginning if you hadn’t written everything leading up to it. The same way that many people have come before you, many words may come before your story’s beginning.

Writers usually struggle with endings, but I think beginnings are exponentially more difficult to write. Your characters help you arrive at an ending, but a beginning can begin anywhere.

And isn’t life like that? Don’t we all have false starts? Doesn’t it take some of us years to start living? If you think writing is hard, try living.

(Photo by russelljsmith)

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