Begin at the Beginning?

At what point in a story should the audience jump in? That is a question every writer (of books or movies or plays) must grapple with. And it is not as easy as it sounds!In the past few weeks, I’ve run across two examples of writers who made opposite choices. 

The first comes from a book I’ve wanted to read for over a year—a  nice, fat paperback (I love fat books!), a unique retelling of a story I love. But, alas, as I delved into its pages I found myself bored. Why? Because the author began at the beginning of the character’s story. Not at his birth, but at the beginning incident that shaped who he was becoming. But the story of his evolution isn’t nearly as compelling as the story of who he is on the other side of it. I would much rather the author have started the story on about page 350 (of almost 500) and given me the rest in snatches and hints along the way. 

On the other hand, as I drove girls to a softball tournament I again had the experience of “listening” to a familiar movie. This always helps me see things in the writing of the story that I don’t see when I watch it. The opening scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean struck me in where it began each character’s story. In the opening “prologue” type scene, we are introduced to the Elizabeth, Will and the gold coin—the coin being the most important of the three. Then we are drawn into the present day story some years later, meeting these two characters again in different circumstances. When we first meet Jack Sparrow, just a bit later, we learn he is a pirate and his ship is called the Black Pearl, and yet he has no ship. In fact, he is trying to steal one from the British navy! 

The place the screenwriter chose to bring the audience into the story propels the audience through the story by NOT knowing every detail of the characters’ lives to the point that we meet them. A more amateur writer might have started this story when the pirates found the cursed gold or maybe when Captain Barbosa arranged a mutiny to take over the Black Pearl from Captain Jack Sparrow. But both of those beginnings would have made it tedious to get to the real action, to the real story. 

So where to begin? I’m still learning to figure that out!


2 comments on “Begin at the Beginning?

  1. D’Ann, The starting place is one of the most difficult concepts for me, too. You want a compelling opening, but you have to made sure that opening invokes some sort of reader empathy with the characters. Jumping right into a hanging off the cliff with the bad guys aiming guns at the character seems too rushed. I’m actually a reader who will give the author a chapter or two to see if I’m drawn into either the confict or the characters. After that, if I’m not hooked, I’ll often pass on the book and read something else. I like any read that has some secret from the past that unfolds with the story.
    Good observations!

  2. D’Ann,
    Excellent point. You and I have heard the advice so many times–if the story gets off to a bad start, deep six the first chapter and start with chapter two. Then you can put the backstory in as things develop.

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