Where Do I Begin?

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Paul Whybrow

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At which point in your characters' lives do you begin your story?

Should your protagonist be the first person your readers meet? Or, as in my chosen genre of crime, should it be the victim who appears first, fearful that they're in danger and trying to escape, or perhaps they're long dead and their corpse is laying undiscovered.

It's long been said, in a jokey way, that a story should have: 'A start a muddle and an end.'

Some famous novels use reverse chronology, beginning at the end of the story and working backwards to explain how the narrator got there.Martin Amis wrote Time's Arrow through the eyes of a protagonist who can apparently bring people back to life, though it's revealed that he's actually a doctor at Auschwitz concentration camp who's killing inmates in medical experiments; his story is told in reverse order.

Ambrose Bierce wrote a famous short story called An Occurrence At Owl Creek, which begins as the protagonist is about to be hanged by the neck, but there are flashbacks and a twist ending.

Timing is all, and it can affect not just the start of a story, but each subsequent chapter. William Goldman admitted:

I never enter scenes until the last possible moment...and as soon as it's done I get the hell out of there.

Blaise Pascal reckoned that: The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first.

I've rewritten all of my first chapters, after typing The End, to include foreshadowing that I wasn't thinking of as I set out on a new writing adventure.

Poet Vickie Karp said: When we read, we start at the beginning and continue until we reach the end. When we write, we start in the middle and fight our way out.

Looking at my own Cornish Detective novels, I see that I always begin my stories in the here and now, describing the crime victim as their body is found or as they die or as they are released from danger.

In Who Kills A Nudist?, the titular murder victim was killed the night before the story starts, and at the end of the first chapter his corpse is discovered on a windswept beach.

The Perfect Murderer begins on the day that the third victim of serial killer is found, a murderer who took his first target two months before.

An Elegant Murder starts in the present, but, in the mind of a deluded woman who is about to be murdered. Mentally, she is living forty years ago, having just escaped incarceration in the mental healthy system.

Sin Killers starts in the here and now, as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old boy who's just been released by his kidnappers, who held him for two days.

My WIP The Dead Need Nobody begins a few minutes before a young painter is thrown to her death. This murder happened three weeks before the rest of the story starts

I never reveal from Chapter One who the killer is, though he usually appears early on. In the two novels I've written from a multiple POV, the murderer gets his say. My crime stories are how-catch-'ems rather than who-dun-its. Although they begin in the present, all of the investigations involve delving back decades into the childhoods of the antagonists, to unravel the motivation for their crimes.

When do you begin your story?

Do you use a prologue describing the dim and distant past, when something significant occurred, with repercussions for your modern day characters?

Have any of you ever written a tale that begins at the end of the events that make up the bulk of the story?

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The general consensus is that a story begins at the point of change, so in your character's normal world but at the pivotal moment that sets the events in the story rolling.

Of course, it can be quite tricky to identify that key moment and many authors tend to write their way into their story, which isn't wasted time because it's always good to really get to know your characters, but then those first pages need to be cut back so that the pivotal moment is where it all begins.

A classic example of this is where an author has a character waking up on the morning of the day in which the point of change happens, has a shower, stares in the mirror, eats breakfast, heads out to work etc etc. Which of course isn't where the story actually starts.
 
Several times I have started writing a story, got well into it and then gone back and removed most of the first chapter so that the start is then the first plot-related "interesting" thing that happens, rather than the boring setup that I had originally written. Any important character or setting info contained within what I got rid of is then "massaged" back into the story as needed.
 
When do you begin your story?

I try to start after something has happened. Something which sets everything else in motion or which shows who the characters are at least.

Do you use a prologue describing the dim and distant past, when something significant occurred, with repercussions for your modern day characters?

Every time I try it I end up with a whole new story.

But I'm off prologues these days and feeling very strongly about it. I don't have the patience for a writer who believes they need to prep me for their story. Anything I need to know they can put into the story itself.

Have any of you ever written a tale that begins at the end of the events that make up the bulk of the story?

Yeah. I tried that once and ended up with a whole new story. That's one of the prologues I tried to write.
 
I totally forgot why I was looking at this post ....

I've been watching Columbo all of my life. I'd still be watching but I imagine Peter Falk deserved a break before he passed away.

Columbo is a murder mystery movie series that aired for 35 years and every episode, except those not worthy of mention, begins before the murder. We know who did it and how they did it before Columbo shows up. Sometimes we know why they did it and we know how they tried to hide what they did. It's genius and I can't put my finger on the one thing that makes it work but I promise you, it does.

It might be because we enjoy watching the murderer suffer. Columbo always knows immediately who did it. He's unassuming, passive aggressive, and persistent. He often makes the murderer his partner, forcing them to participate in their own discovery. But if you ever needed proof that murder mysteries aren't about the mystery of who committed the crime, watch some Columbo. The mystery is always what people will do when faced with no choice, or with the worst they can imagine.
 
Several times I have started writing a story, got well into it and then gone back and removed most of the first chapter so that the start is then the first plot-related "interesting" thing that happens, rather than the boring setup that I had originally written. Any important character or setting info contained within what I got rid of is then "massaged" back into the story as needed.

This is called 'scaffolding', apparently. I guess we all do it. The difficulty is in recognising which bit is scaffolding, so you can remove it from the building once it's solid. I find I 'write myself into' my story, and only when the characters are well on the way can I go back and recognise where the story does actually start. 'Creating' something from nothing is a strange old process; the creator fumbling about in a dark creative space until something starts to go right. I wonder if that's how it was for God?
 
I totally forgot why I was looking at this post ....

I've been watching Columbo all of my life. I'd still be watching but I imagine Peter Falk deserved a break before he passed away.

I love the premise of keeping things from your characters, not from your readers. I guess Columbo exemplifies this. It's not who-dun-it that provides tension, but whether they get away with it or are found out. This is why for me detective fiction often doesn't work (despite its popularity). When the writer holds too much back, I find myself skipping pages to the punchline. I like the new tag of why-dun-it. Much more pertinent to characterisation.
 
As gruesome as it may sound, have you considered the final heartbeats, the last thoughts of your victim as the start of a story?

I've done this several times, inspired by reading an Ed McBain 87th Precinct series police procedural novel called Ten Plus One, when I was a teenager. The plot features a sniper who is randomly killing victims. One of them is a businessman, who while queuing to enter a carousel door to leave an office building, is shot through the foyer plate glass window. McBain skilfully gives his final thoughts, as he thinks he's tripped over his own feet and fears that he's also put his hand through the glass and is likely to be cut.

People don't always know that they're dying, even as it's happening. In my first Cornish Detective novel The Perfect Murderer, a serial killer was stalking victims in the countryside, eliminating them to win points in a bizarre role-playing game. I wrote in a multiple POV, including the final thoughts of an unemployed lorry driver who was out hunting rabbits, as a way of supplementing his income. He uses nets placed over the exits from a rabbit warren, sending in two terriers to chase the bunnies out. One of the dogs becomes trapped in a narrow tunnel, so he lays down on the earth to reach inside and free it, but the hood of his waterproof jacket seemingly gets snagged on something in the roof of the tunnel. Reaching back to free himself, he feels something metal, thinking it might be shrapnel from a WW2 bomb dumped by a fleeing German plane. But it can't be that, as it's too smooth. There's a moment of heat through his fingertips and a flash in his brain, as the killer fires a bullet from his automatic pistol.
 
This is called 'scaffolding', apparently. I guess we all do it. The difficulty is in recognising which bit is scaffolding, so you can remove it from the building once it's solid. I find I 'write myself into' my story, and only when the characters are well on the way can I go back and recognise where the story does actually start. 'Creating' something from nothing is a strange old process; the creator fumbling about in a dark creative space until something starts to go right. I wonder if that's how it was for God?
I think as one grows as a writer this may get less and less; as your developing instincts hone in on the true beginning sooner. But I suspect we all do this... and recognising that it's common makes it somewhat reassuring. It's not a false start, just a toe-dip in the story pond before you jump in.
 
I've done this several times, inspired by reading an Ed McBain 87th Precinct series police procedural novel calledTen Plus One, when I was a teenager. The plot features a sniper who is randomly killing victims. One of them is a businessman, who while queuing to enter a carousel door to leave an office building, is shot through the foyer plate glass window. McBain skilfully gives his final thoughts, as he thinks he's tripped over his own feet and fears that he's also put his hand through the glass and is likely to be cut.

People don't always know that they're dying, even as it's happening. In my first Cornish Detective novel The Perfect Murderer, a serial killer was stalking victims in the countryside, eliminating them to win points in a bizarre role-playing game. I wrote in a multiple POV, including the final thoughts of an unemployed lorry driver who was out hunting rabbits, as a way of supplementing his income. He uses nets placed over the exits from a rabbit warren, sending in two terriers to chase the bunnies out. One of the dogs becomes trapped in a narrow tunnel, so he lays down on the earth to reach inside and free it, but the hood of his waterproof jacket seemingly gets snagged on something in the roof of the tunnel. Reaching back to free himself, he feels something metal, thinking it might be shrapnel from a WW2 bomb dumped by a fleeing German plane. But it can't be that, as it's too smooth. There's a moment of heat through his fingertips and a flash in his brain, as the killer fires a bullet from his automatic pistol.
Ah... and have you thought about getting even closer to the end? The last second? So perhaps a story begins with a seemingly random thought that sends the reader off on a red-herring trail, until they realise the thinker was in fact the victim?
 
Ah... and have you thought about getting even closer to the end? The last second? So perhaps a story begins with a seemingly random thought that sends the reader off on a red-herring trail, until they realise the thinker was in fact the victim?

Your idea reminds me of George Carlin's suggestion about life:

Life in reverse By George Carlin

"The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends.

I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time.
What do you get at the end of it?
A death.
What's that, a bonus?
I think the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first; get it out of the way.
Then you live in an old age home.
You get kicked out when you're too young, you get a gold watch,
you go to work.
You work forty years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You drink alcohol, you party,
you get ready for high school.
You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb,
You spend your last nine months floating...
Then you finish off as an orgasm."
 
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