Off we go

On May 9, 2012, Kelly wrote, I was curious to see if you had any ideas on what to do when you don’t know where to start when you begin writing. I have a great plot, and do-able characters–but I can’t decide where I should start. Anybody have any ideas?

I usually find my beginning in notes. As I’m jotting down ideas for how my story might go, a first scene drops into my head, so I start writing. This first scene may not ultimately be the first scene by the time I reach the end, and it may change again as I revise, but it’s enough to get me going…

which is all we need. The beginning we begin with is no more precious than any words that come later. It needs only to move us further into the story. If we give it too much importance we’re likely to freeze up and never get beyond a few paragraphs written and rewritten until we want to snap our pens in two or pour molasses on our keyboards.

The famous advice, to begin in medias res, in the middle of things, is one way to go. Suppose your plot involves Julie’s quest to establish her independence, a need she doesn’t recognize at the outset. She tends to rely on other people and rarely asserts herself. We can start with action: Julie is doing something foolish on a dare that a more self-possessed character would have refused to take on.

But that’s only one option. We can begin with setting. Say Julie lives in a model housing development for a repressed minority group in the totalitarian kingdom of Ambur. We might start with a guided tour for the free press of the nation’s democratic neighbor, the republic of Guma. If we see Julie at all, she’s merely one in a chorus of teenagers brought out to sing a paean to tyrannical King Stanil. This beginning focuses on setting. We show the small, neat houses where the grass is always kept three inches long; the box-like school with its tiny, barred windows; the community vegetable garden, where space is not allowed for flowers. And because we want to introduce a little blip of tension, we have a rock-and-roll song (considered degenerate by the king) waft out of an upstairs window, which causes the tour guide to take out her notebook and jot down the address of the offending house. (Later we can learn that the house belongs to Julie’s family.)

Or we can take on an explication of the era with a page or several pages from a history book about the reign of King Stanil the Terrible. The excerpt may include the housing complex,.

Or we can start with character. Julie is in the bedroom of her friend, who’s showing off her new leggings in a pattern of tiny mice and rats. Julie’s real reaction is Yuck!, but she expresses only admiration.

Of course there are many ways to begin with character. When we started with action before, with the dare, we were also revealing character. Thoughts are another option for a character start. Julie is trying to fall asleep, but she’s worrying about a dispute between two of her friends and planning how she can position herself so that each one feels her support and both continue to like her.

If we don’t want to go the thoughts route, we can put this rumination in her diary and open with that. In this case, Julie doesn’t have to be the POV character. The next chapter can show our POV character, Mel, reading the diary. Or the next chapter can be Mel’s diary.

If beginnings make you choke up, you can jump right into a scene further along and write the beginning later. When you’ve gotten going you’re likely to discover scenes that come before the one you’ve written. At that point you may know exactly what’s needed, and your beginning may sail right out.

Let’s imagine that Julie discovers that her neighbor Mel is an informant for King Stanil. We write the scene, imagining the circumstances, but we realize the emotional impact on the reader is blunted because the relationship between Julie and Mel hasn’t been shown. So we write an earlier scene between Julie and Mel. Maybe we show Mel being kind to Julie and Julie being a little afraid of him. Now we’re wondering what Julie’s going to do later about the informing and we decide we need a scene that will shed light on her thought process. In this scene, which also takes place before the informing has been revealed, Julie asks her older sister if she ever finds Mel scary. Her sister says, “Mel has been nothing but good to this family. If he could hear you he’d be so disappointed. We’d be shamed, all of us.” When Julie discovers Mel’s perfidy she’s going to have to take her family’s obligation to him into account. Maybe she’ll even decide she should spy along with him.

Taking another tack, it’s possible that the problem in entering a story that has a fine plot may be blurriness about the characters who will put it into action. Suppose we know there’s a despotic monarch and a network of domestic spies and a downtrodden population who will rebel led by a young girl, but we don’t know who the girl will be. We haven’t imagined Julie yet or given her her personal struggle to act independently. We’re certain we need a leader of the spies but we haven’t imagined him either. And every despot is despot in a different way, but we haven’t fleshed out King Stanil.

Once we figure out our cast of characters we can think about how they might rub against each other. We can imagine King Stanil in his royal chamber with his chief counselor while his barber cuts his hair. How does he behave? We can show Mel walking through the housing complex, taking mental notes. We can have Julie’s mother set her a task and watch the way she carries it out. From this, from thinking about who else we may need, we can start writing.

These prompts come from Julie and the kingdom of Ambur:

∙ Write the scene between King Stanil, his barber, and his counselor. Consider not only Stanil but the others too, and how they may figure in the coming drama.

∙ Put Julie in the middle of the quarrel between her two friends. Write the scene and make both of them get mad at her. Use this as the beginning of a story.

∙ Write Julie carrying out the foolish dare. Get her into trouble. Write the story that follows.

∙ Write the scene in the model housing development. Have King Stanil come along in his armored vehicle and motorcade of security guards.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. great post. Makes me want to drop everything and write dystopias forever… that'd be fun…

    I have a sort of beginning-related question for the comments section (and a post, if you think it's big enough for one):
    What's everyone's opinion on prologues? I read somewhere that everybody knows that "prologue" is just code for "backstory", but then again, backstory is important, now isn't it? I say this because the first chapter in my current project takes place six years before the main conflict, so technically I ought to be calling it a prologue, but I've always shied away from the term for the above reason. If there's tension in the backstory scenes, is there any reason to leave them off until later? When you jump in medias res, does anyone really dictate which medias res you're jumping in?

    (by the way, as a student of Latin, I'm very excited to have finally realised that in medias res, when translated literally, means "into the middle things". Which doesn't sound quite as good, but means the same thing. And explains why I just said "jumping in" instead of "jumping into".)

  2. @Charlotte: I'd try to work the prologue into the body of the story as a flashback or something. If your book can do without it, I'd say to try to cut it/move it. Unless a prologue is extremely well-written or it interests me as much as the actually storyline of the book does, they generally bore me and I skip them to get to the actual plot more quickly.

  3. Strangely enough, I haven't had beginning problems in any of my books so far. Well, I have had some trouble with it in my children's books, but with my "novels" I usually just start with a striking statement and then jump into the action. Maybe they aren't the best beginnings, but they get ME going, and I figure that's the most important part. I'll worry about what the reader thinks if I ever try to get published.

    Charlotte – I think it depends. I've read one or two prologues that were not well-done, but I've also read some really good ones. I can't help thinking of the prologue in Jessica Day George's "Princesses of the Midnight Ball." The prologue takes place at an indefinite time before the main plot of the book, but in four or so pages, you're already trying to solve the mystery created and figure out who the mentioned characters are. Then the story then takes off from its "real" beginning, at a slower pace, and picks up like a normal story, but that prologue sticks in your head the whole time as you slowly put the pieces together to figure out how the prologue fits in. It is so cool! And masterfully done.

  4. Gail – well, if your looking for questions, here's one that may not necessarily call for a post, but I'll share anyway. You see, my story is a spy story – you know, lots of fight scenes, near-death experiences, traveling all over the world, being awesome – you get the idea. But It's boring. You see, my MC's from my last book are being guided on this mission by two experienced agents who don't really trust them for most of the book. They basically say, "We're going here. You do this. We meet this person. You do that. We escape. Any questions?" It seems stale. I don't know what to do. Maybe the problem is that there's no mystery, only action and character development. But I may be wrong. How can I add make it seem more interesting?

    P.S. How could you possibly be running out of questions? We bloggers haven't been doing our job;)

  5. @writeforfun: What if your MC's start getting annoyed/bored with the other agents' orders, right from the beginning, and eventually they decide they have a better idea and go off on an attempt to do things their own way? I don't know if that works with your story, but it's the first thing that popped into my head. 🙂

  6. @writeforfun: the above ideas are really good. I have another one: what if your subordinate spies freeze up? Get scared when they're supposed to be concentrating, or say the wrong thing and blow everyone's cover, etc. Another thing I just thought of: an MC could overhear the baddies talking and find out some surprising piece of information that even the leaders don't know, something that changes everything about how they should be going about their mission. And what if that MC can't tell their superiors about it? (I don't know why… because they have no proof, I guess, or something to that effect. Ooh, or one of the superiors is working for the bad guys. Or something.) That could create tension, because the bosses might tell them to do one thing, but they know that if they do it, everything will come to ruin. But if they don't do it, they could get thrown off the mission and everything will definitely come to ruin. Et cetera.

    Do with my musings as you like–this was fun!

  7. Gail- Do you make up the scenarios and names for your posts on the spot? And have you ever continued writing off of an idea you came up with for the blog? Because that's really cool if you can come up with something just like that. Happy belated birthday by the way. Sorry if I seem like a stalker.

  8. This dystopia talk reminded me of something I've wondered about lately. In every dystopia I have read, the hero is introduced to The Resistance by somebody else, usually their love interest but sometimes a friend or mentor. I discovered that I can't think of a single book, movie, or play where the protagonist is the one who puts The Resistance together. There are mercenaries and assassins who act alone and heroes who embark on quests by themselves (collecting new friends en route) but nobody ever puts their own army together. The closest thing I can think of is Harry Potter putting together Dumbledores Army, but even he does that only at the urging of Ron and Hermione. Can anybody enlighten me? (Doesn't have to be dystopian)

    • I think it has something to do with the fact that you usually need a LOT of people to start a resistance, and it takes a very long and boring time before anything actually gets accomplished. Basically as soon as a regime gets set up there will be people who don't agree with it, and they'll probably get together very early but have to wait years–decades even–before they can infiltrate the enemy's side enough that they can actually do any damage in bringing it down. If they were able to overthrow the baddies in the beginning, the regime wouldn't have been set up in the first place–thus the long and boring part. Not too good for a story, although not impossible. I'd love to see someone try it.

      I definitely think that there should be instances closer to what you're saying, though. Like a person going to seek out the already-in-place resistance instead of being introduced by someone close to them. Or starting their own mini-resistance that could eventually be noticed by the big one–overthrowing a small aread like a town could be possible in a short period of time, especially if you take the soldiers' resources so you can wait out the inevitable siege. Or something completely different.

      There are always possibilities. Some are just trickier than others, so authors don't always think of them.

  9. Realize I'm a bit late to the party here, but I'm so glad I found your blog, Gail! I was a little girl when Ella came out and I devoured it whole, and now that I'm an adult (in name only) I am very pleased to be reading your writing advice.

    Let's see… Beginnings. I generally like to start on or close to the inciting incident. The day the protagonist's life changed, or just before or after. Think about why you're writing the story in this time in the main character's life. In Ella Enchanted, for example, the main action starts when Ella's mother dies. This is the event that causes her father to come home, for him to find a new wife, for her to meet Char,and the ball gets rolling. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, the first chapter is more like a prologue, and the second chapter is the true beginning. That's the day that Harry gets his letter to Hogwarts. And everything changes.

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