The Revisionist: Starting at the Beginning

posted in: Writing Advice | 0

Starting at the Beginning - Charlotte's WebThis week I’ve been working on a short story for an upcoming competition inspired by Sarah Selecky’s daily prompts. I’ve been focusing on one that suggested spending at least 10 minutes writing about a “teachable moment.” I started it last summer, when I decided to do a 30-day writing challenge: write every day for 30 days for at least 10 minutes. I picked 30 of my favourite prompts and worked my way through them, finding some easier than others.

I’d often start the same way, seizing on the first thing that came to mind when I read the prompt and thinking for a few minutes about the shape and direction of the story before launching into the writing. Who would tell it, what would the voice sound like? How might it end? What twist or turns might happen in the middle? The great thing about these challenges is that they’re literally like doing sit-ups and squats. They’re not going to impress anyone, but they’ll help get you in shape.

For this one on a teachable moment, I immediately thought of something that happened when I was about 11 or 12, when I participated in a music competition. I wrote for 10 minutes. Then another 10 minutes, then another 10. I started off at the competition itself – the warning from my teacher to play as I’d been taught – and when that scene was down on the page, I moved backward in time, to when the piece had first been introduced and built the bones of the story out from there.

When I shared it with my writing group, one of the readers said – quite wisely – that the beginning was actually the end. Why? Why not start at the beginning and build up to the end?

She mentioned she sees this often with her students. They’ve been told to “start as late as you can in the story” and what’s later than the end?

She was 100 per cent right. Finding a story’s beginning takes practice. It’s about more than a memorable opening line, it’s about the first vignette we want to tell that not only sets the stage and introduces us to the protagonist, it should plunge us immediately into the action.

Think about Charlotte’s Web. The opening line is: “’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” We don’t back into the story with a little description of bucolic farm life. We get right to the good stuff. That line gets us where we need to go, quickly!

(A quick aside to note that E.B. White has written that Fern was a last minute addition to the story; it initially focused solely on the animals, but as he got closer to sending the manuscript to the publisher, he felt he needed someone for the children to connect with, someone who would stir their own empathy. So he invented Fern Arable, who would go on to successfully argue for Wilbur’s first pardon, convincing her Papa to spare him from the death sentence usually given to the runt.)

Once you’ve got a story that’s taking shape, a story whose theme is starting to take emerge, you can get a better sense of whether the story opens with the right moment. Does it get the story going, or does it stall with small details? Be ruthless. First impressions count.

(photo courtesy of Leah Kelley)

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