6. So you’ve started writing . . . but where should you begin?

Start writing a novel in the middle of the story.

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Research done, fears and procrastination dispensed with, plot clear (or clearer), outline completed, it is time to start writing. But where to start the story? Do you start from the beginning, the middle or the end? Much has been written about in media res. Start in the middle. The advantages are many.

  • You can introduce your protagonist in some sort of dilemma. As the story unfolds, the dilemma is explained, the background explored, and the story develops toward a resolution.
  • Or start with an inciting incident. This grabs the readers attention, establishes a time and place, and enables you to explore the story, develop your characters and, again, head toward a resolution.

Starting your story in the middle gives the writer much leeway to go back and forth in time.

One of the critical things I learned years back was to understand the time frame of a story’s action. What do I mean by this? From the first time the protagonist is introduced or from the time the inciting event occurs, determine how long the “action” of the story covers. Is it a day, a week, a year, or many years? Does it matter? It sure does.

In “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the actual events in the story take 20 minutes, but the reader is exposed to a storyline that occurred over the previous 70 years. How wonderful is this? How skillful! The writer takes you back and forth, peeling away layer upon layer of the character’s history and all that surrounds the story, enriching it to make a sumptuous meal of words and ideas. I urge readers and writers alike to account for the length of time a story actually takes, and also pay attention to how much time in actually covers. Starting a story in the middle permits the writer to paint a vivid and rich story by skillfully guiding the reader through time patches that enhance the novel.

It is possible to craft a story telling the tale starting from the end. Consider “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All: A Novel.” by Allan Gurganus. This is the story of a 99 year old widow who tells her life story. In doing so, the author is able to go back and forth in time, engaging the reader in a rich and satisfying book.

Lastly it is not a good idea to start a story at the beginning. Starting at the beginning does not allow the writer to refer to past events because everything is still in the “future.” Consider movies that are essentially fast and furious “chase” scenes. It is one stunt after another, with little character or story development. The movie can be exciting, but it is not a fully formed story layered in depth. Novels that start in the middle are.







3. Words to page (so to speak)

Research done, outline completed, idea germinated . . . whatever it takes, you start to write. One question that comes up often is how “perfect” does each sentence need to be when you first start writing.

For starters, don’t fret about how you start your novel. While the first sentence is critical in a finished work, as is the first paragraph – these are often what hooks a reader into continuing to read your work – your first sentence and first paragraph are most often changed, tweaked or eliminated when you actually start writing.

But wait, you are already writing. You’ve written a first sentence, a first paragraph and then a chapter. You’ve strung a boatload of chapters together into a compelling story. Not so fast. A first draft of a story or novel is not writing. For sure, it encompasses the writing process, but it is not writing. It records words.

“Writing,” to quote a mentor of mine, John Bowers, “is rewriting.” It is not until you pour over your words and paragraphs and chapters many times, are you writing. This is when you edit, embellish, tweak, fix, expand, and do so much more to improve your work. You may find that by the time you get to the end of your story, the beginning no longer works. While you wrote the words, you should not own them. Be prepared to toss them if they don’t enhance the story. When it comes to beginnings, your words are most important and need to be just right, so do whatever is necessary to make them your best.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, April 1986

This says it all. If a writer accepts Ms. Oates’s dictum, them those first words penned at first onset are not that important, so don’t get bogged down on them. Rather, get your story going. Once you have reached the ending, you return to the beginning (give your story a rest for a few weeks before doing this) because now you have a better sense of what the beginning needs. You may keep those first words you wrote, but now you are sure they work. Or, you may choose another path. Regardless of what you do at this point, you have evolved from writing to becoming a writer.

How do you start a new work? I would love to hear about your writing experiences.