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Where to Begin?

Maybe this is more of a straw-poll post. Among my writer friends, there is no consensus about the “best” place to start a narrative. It seems logical to start at the beginning, of course, but I’ve learned that’s often a moving target.

The very first novel I wrote to completion started at a point in time I thought was integral to the story. In medias res, they say. In the middle of things. Sixty thousand words in, I realized I was in the entirely wrong decade of my narrative timeline. So, the first forty thousand words went to the slush pile (and eventually to the trash).

That’s a lot of words to waste, but it was the right thing to do for the sake of the story.

For my latest novel, I decided to start writing scenes, in whatever order they come to me. Now I have twenty-five thousand words, and no beginning. Somehow, I believe the true start of the novel will reveal itself once I have all the scenes in the proper order.

Memoir and nonfiction writers may have an easier time determining the right place to start. It’s probably a significant event, or the dawning of an important realization. But, is fiction different?

I give a lot of credit to short-story writers, who have very little real estate to belabor a point. Perhaps, those of us who write in the long form should take notes…

John Fox gives some excellent advice about this in his post “20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph.” He offers classic examples of great starts, and two big concepts seem consistent across them.

• The writer builds some kind of suspense, opening the door just a crack, letting in just enough light to make the narrative intriguing, but enough mystery to compel the reader forward.

• A mood is set, either by way of setting or by revealing a character’s internal thoughts or disposition.

Also, I always felt my first sentences had to be so profound and amazing to capture the attention and win the respect of my reader. But the more I read, the more I realize it is far more critical to open in my narrator’s natural voice. And sometimes, that’s just plain, unfancied English.

So, tell me, do you start writing at the beginning? Or see where the narrative takes you? Do you intentionally start somewhere else – in the middle or at the end and write your way toward a beginning?

And how do you determine where the story starts? How much do you rely on your reader to fill in details you don’t give her?

Or (gasp!) is Page One of your narrative the actual ending of the story and you write towards the present?

Obviously, there is no right way to do this writing thing. It is art more than science and a good story never adheres to a formula. So, I suppose the best way to start is simply to put the pen to the page (or your fingers on the keys) and just WRITE!


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