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.

So –

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.

*ninja smoke-bomb*

36 comments

  • funny. i find the superhero origin stories really interesting, and the chase/action bad guys vs. good guys bits booooooring.

    i don’t know if that’s a relevant comment though.

  • Holy shit this is the best damn advice you have given.

    Seriously, if you are a writer THIS IS THE SHIT YOU NEED TO KNOW.

    Take it to heart kiddos.

    (and I am cross-eyed jealous over that fucking *ninja smoke bomb* at the end.)

  • For the second time in as many days, you’re posting advice I’ve just recently been pounding into my own head.

    Get out of my head, dammit!

    And yes, start in the action, not at the beginning. Damn backstory – I only care until it’s both interesting and relevant. If I care enough to want to know but you don’t tell me, I’ll just have fun making it up myself.

  • Chuck, I agree that stories need to get to the point. But what about those times when the story starts with a teaser scene, a sort of “flash into the future of what’s coming”. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I feel likes it’s a little overused and by overused I mean I have done that and I find that I was doing it because I was (am maybe still am) being lazy.

    People have the right to start their story anyway they please but what are your thoughts on that? Is it lazy or just clever?

  • But, but, but, Julie Andrews told me to ‘start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’!

    All kidding aside, great advice. Two of the fun parts of writing: knowing where to start, and figuring how much of that back story is stuff the reader needs to know as opposed to stuff *I* need to know.

  • So many people don’t understand why I like to hop into stories partway through, whether it’s a film, a book series or a television show. Maybe I’m not interested in the entire concept, but I am interested in one specific segment of it. If it’s interesting enough, I might go back for more, and realise the whole story did interest me, but I didn’t realise it.

    It’s not exactly what you’re saying here, but it’s near enough. It’s why I often like a series if I skip over the first, introductory, origin story volume. I want to see what happens next!

  • I have ALWAYS hated the origin stories in the comic book movies. Hollywood feels like they need to put that shit in there to appeal to the non comic reader and that pisses me off. Make the movies for the fanboys and the rest of the audience will come. Or they won’t but either way you’ll have a much better movie!!!!

    whoa…. rant over.

    But, I did like the origin story in Batman Begins. That was done much better than that little whiney Peter Parker’s story.

  • What if your state of mind contributed to the accident? What if you had been at a bar and had a drink, not drunk but comfortable. What if you had an argument with a close friend at the bar? How do you balance past as prologue? I ask this as someone who wrote 30000 words before getting to the story. I had read your start at the beginning advice in your book and I tried to stick to it… but my original thought of four or five pages of introduction has turned into 75 pages. How am I going to edit it down? Help me Chuck, help me. Maybe I’m writing a character study? Are character studies boring? What have I done?

    PS I’m at 62000+ words thanks to you and your books.Thank you.

    • @Remi —

      Despite the somewhat extreme nature of my blog headline, “never” is not exactly accurate — if you can genuinely make the beginning interesting and believe that what happens there is critical CRITICAL information, hey, start at the very beginning.

      Mostly, though, in my experience you can cut a lot of that out and shortcut it with some tight tense description — and, even better, inference rather than straight up exposition — later in the tale. The “drink drunk argument state of mind” is pretty much a thing that can be made clear right at the time of the accident. What’s interesting is the accident. What’s not interesting is the long build up to it — unless, of course, what happens in the lead-up is itself awesome and exciting and engaging.

      As to how to edit — well, you just do. :) When you’re done the first draft, you’ll go back and see what really needs to go. Beta readers and editors will help.

      — c.

  • This has been on my mind lately too, since I’m reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower for the first time ever — and he HEAVES you into the story, oh, twenty years after it actually started. There’s an immensely rich backstory that I’m only
    getting hints of, and that makes me hanker for that information so, so so much more than if it had been spoon-fed to the reader in chronological order from the very beginning.

    So: agreed.

    • Sometimes the trick of detailing the beginning is making sure the beginning of the story is not actually *at* the beginning of the story. Meaning, you can start in the middle and then go backwards to revisit the necessary components from the past. You can flashback to BEFORE the accident, to the pertinent character details — stuff that won’t seem boring because by then we’re invested in story and character.

      We can visit the beginning without beginning there.

      If that makes sense.

      — c.

  • I don’t always think early informational stuff is always bad… all aspects of storytelling have a time and place to be effective. Info dumps can be used to make sense of things at times. But I agree never ever ever in the beginning.

    You can’t hook your audience with an info dump.

    Proof it works? I rewrote the first chapter of my novel by lopping off the first seven pages and cndensing into a half page flashback in Act 2. I went from an info dump to a pirate getting sniped in mid-drunken toast. Much more interesting than their ship’s flight path eh?

  • Here’s just another distraction to keep my two-week-blahs-self from writing my NaNo words for this evening.

    Where is the beginning? If you believe in such things, the beginning is: ‘In the beginning, God created…’

    I start a book at Chapter 6. Because we all have a history.

    But this book that I’m doing now, I started at the end. The first scene is the ending because it is a real historical event. So, one could know the outcome even though it’s an obscure period.This tactic may be overused, but I feel it works in this situation. Then I go back and cover the few weeks that lead up to it.

    NaNo: slow going because I’m cutting the crap. I don’t want to pound out words that I have to delete later. I’m working on structure to keep the story focused. I want to use this draft to finish a novel! I, too, need to outline and every scene that is not necessary is getting cut. Before I write it. Now I’m going to go and write ‘what if’ a thousand times to get me back on track.

  • @ Remi –

    The thing I’ve had drilled into my hand (James McDonald, maybe?) is to provide information exactly when it is needed, and then only the information that is needed to help the reader understand what’s going on.

    This serves two purposes:

    a) Keeps a sense of mystery, presents puzzles – Chuck’s gone on about this one!

    b) Skips the boring stuff that doesn’t much matter in the scale of things. (Chuck’s point here)

    In your example, the drinking isn’t important to the reader’s understanding of the story; the drunkenness itself is. The distracted-because-of-fight isn’t important to the reader’s understanding; the distractedness itself is.

    So such a scene might go:

    1. Establish slowed reactions and distraction by having the character conducting an elaborate drunken argument with the person who isn’t there anymore. Maybe dropping a few physical pointers of drunkenness, or maybe just letting the argument carry it. Maybe noticing that other people seem to be driving very unevenly? (Never drunk-drove, dunno.)

    2. Present a danger that the character narrowly avoids, to take it from funny-drunk to dangerous-drunk. Maybe there’s a car full of kids that she swerves away from at the last minute (“why you going so slooooow? that’s dangerous, you know. Very dangerous. Dangerbus. Hah.” Oh, man, I got to get a grip here, I shouldn’t be–)

    3. Crash.

    Ten thousand other ways, but that’s one.

  • Great advice! So often writers are told to hook the reader (or agent, or editor) right from the start, without as much concrete info on how to do it. This goes a long way to simplifying it. When we tell stories verbally, we usually start with the headline (“I was in a car accident”) that condenses the essence of the story. How many unpublished WIPs start like that? Not many, I’ll bet.

  • I think my book has started correctly, I went from the beginning and without it I’m not going to be able to introduce some very important characters until too late in the story. Without it you don’t care as much about what happens in chapter two so, I think I’ll keep mine the way it is, but that is great advice in many circumstances.

  • In the mystery setting, this plays into a phenomenon my family refers to as “Jogger or Corpse.” In the opening scene of any good mystery, you see a person – first page, first frames, etc. As a general rule, that person is either (a) the jogger about to find the corpse in the bushes, or (b) the corpse about to end up in said bushes. Acceptable variations include “this is the murderer” or – more rarely – “this is the ninja detective who’s about to do a super-cool ninja thing to distract you from the fact that he’s not actually the jogger or the corpse.”

    Generally speaking, though, it has to be jogger or corpse because we’re not reading this thing for backstory. We want to get to the stabby-stabby bits as quickly as possible.

  • One of the many ideas I have conceived over the years is a superhero one.

    For the first few attempts (and I’m yet to follow through with the project), I started with the origin stories. Thinking about it though, I think it’ll be way more interesting if I start during the first year of his career, and let all the primary details leak out puzzle piece by puzzle piece.

    The problem though is whether to keep that audience surrogate that attached herself onto one draft, keep her from narrating, or kick her out all together. Maybe the second one would be fine, so she can play the role of romantic interest, even if I have no intentions of them ever getting together.

    Because I’m evil like that. :3

  • I had a playwriting professor who always said “Start as late as you can and get out as fast as you can. Start on the left, move to the right.”

    I miss that class…

  • The old Sam Spade radio shows from the ’48-’51 era covered all that boring stuff in the narrative with, what I think, was a brilliant line.

    “I moved out to my car, and in more time than it takes to tell, found myself on the I-90 headlight deep in speeding garbage truck bumper.”

    They also used “and in less time than it takes to tell” now and then.

    It shows time passed but that everything in that block of time is utterly irrelevant to the story.

  • Hi.

    Great post. I totally agree with such a beginning, “I was in a car accident”. Strong, powerful first lines, to hook the readers, are favorite beginnings for me. Of course, ones that make sense and introduce the rest, not “I was in a car accident” and then start talking about how the sun is shining and that the clouds are fluffy (which I’ve seen and made me quit the book).

    Additionally, “Reading Out Loud” what one has written is an excellent way to identify strengths and weaknesses, what works and what doesn’t, etc. Listening to your own words is very enlightening.

  • Well Chuck, I get what you’re saying, but certaintly you can admit that starting at the beggining is not always necessarily a bad thing. Some books lull you into a nostalgic sense of safety before the real shit happens. By developing main characters as ordinary Joes, it can make the “holy shit my life is changed” moment all the more effective, for that could happen to you. And in the casr of the Spiderman movies they do not necessarily start at the beghinings. 1-3 don’t (not sure for TASM, as I didn’t see it), as it would start at Peter’s early childhood, when his parents died.

    By the way, Beta testers. I always respect them at any level of media, for they push out spare time to shovel through immeasureable amounts of monkey bullcrap, whether it is faulty programs, shitstained books, or glitchy video games. And they sometimes get little in return. It’s something I do not think I would or could do, amd I respect them for that. Respect the Betas, man.

  • Stopped work on my 4th short of the month last night as I realized I’d written over 2,000 words and nothing had really happened. All I was doing was setting up characters, some tech they were using and locations. For a short story that will top out at around 8,000 that’s a lot of words used up with no forward movement in the story.

    Then I remembered reading this advice from Chuck and realized I was doing exactly what he advises not to do. So tonight I start again, at least 1,500 words of what I’ve written will be stripped out meaning the story now starts in the first action scene rather than a day before.

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