Why Stories Should Never Begin At The Beginning
I was in a car accident.
Relax — I wasn’t really. I mean, I’ve had car accidents in my life. None recently. None dramatic.
But, let’s just pretend:
I was in a car accident.
Let’s pretend I’m telling you that, right now. This is me telling you the story. We’re sitting across from each other at a cafe or strip club or on a bench watching squirrels humping. And I say, “I was in a car accident.”
And you say — after that look on your face falls away — “What happened?”
Right here, mark this. Put your thumb on it. Circle it with a fucking pen.
What I don’t say is:
“Well, I got my keys off their hook and then I went into the garage, I got into the car, I sat down, pulled my seatbelt across my lap, inserted the key into the ignition and then turned the key clockwise — or is it counterclockwise? — and the engine revved. Then I reversed out into my driveway and–“
The reason I don’t say that stuff is two-fold.
One: it’s not critical information. In fact, that’s an understatement: none of that information — outside the seatbelt, maybe — is the least bit goddamn relevant. Just isn’t. It’s worthless fol-de-rol. Chaff, not wheat.
Two: it’s boring as shit. This, an even more critical sin. My “getting in the car ritual” — since it doesn’t include like, a human sacrifice or killing terrorists or having dirty sex in the backseat — is duller than a cement floor.
What I do say is:
“I was driving down I-90, and I’m fiddling with the radio knobs and soon as I look up — here comes a garbage truck bounding over the median like a drunken bison, and holy fuck it’s coming right for me.”
Then, from there, I tell the rest of the story. I careened off a guardrail, I flipped the car, I fell through another dimension where my vehicle was stomped to a steel pancake by a Nazi brontosaur, whatever.
The point is that I got to the fucking point.
Look to the way we tell stories in person for critical tale-telling lessons we can use on the page. On the page we seem to have no audience: it’s us looking down the one-way street of a ghost town. But when you tell a story to a live human being, you can behold their body language, can see their eyes shifting and maybe looking for an exit, you can hear the questions they ask to prove their engagement and confirm their curiosity — you have a whole series of potential reflections that tell you whether or not your story (and more important, its telling) is effective. Powerful feedback, right there.
Act like someone is there when you’re writing.
Listening to your words as you type them.
Have you hooked them? Or are they looking for someone else to talk to? Some other story to read?
Have you skipped the bullshit beginning and gotten to the mother-loving point?
By the way, that’s why origin stories are the dullest stories. The Spider-Man Becomes Spider-Man storyline is probably the most boring of all — and made worse because the films keep reiterating the same snooze-a-palooza over and over again. A hero’s origin story is important, but not so important we need it blown into a whole story. It can be a scene. Hell, most of the time it can be a single sentence. “A criminal killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was but a boy, and so now he hunts criminals as Batman.” As storytellers we like to imagine that each piece of the puzzle is super-critical because we thought of it — but the reality is, not all story needs to live on the page. Sometimes it lives behind the page. I don’t need to see the electronics behind the screen to be impressed by the image on my television. In fact, it’s more impressive when I don’t know.
Leave the magic intact.
Skip the boring beginning.
Forget the peel. Get to the banana.
Enter the story as late as you can.
That is all.