“This is where we work, in the interstices of ignorance, the land of contradiction and silence, planning to convince you with the seemingly known, to resolve—or make usefully vivid—the contradiction, and to make the silence eloquent.”
–Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of
Where do we begin when we sit and stare at the blank page, the infinite yet bounded white space of the desktop? That question is sometimes a hard one to address, because it looks like a technical question, but it isn’t. Thus, many of us try to answer it with examples and exercises, only to come spluttering to a full metal stop when we comprehend what it’s really asking. The truth is the existence of the blank page isn’t asking you where to start, when you face it as a writer; it’s asking you what it is you’re trying to say.
The beginning of a story is not where the story itself begins. Sure, that’s often what we’re taught, and at times, that’s a helpful approach to take, especially when you’re stuck. One of the entries I wrote for this here blog a few months ago addressed that aspect of the issue, and it’s a valid technical approach. However, we’re gonna put on our “meta” hats for a moment, and talk about stories as a process.
As such, the beginning of a story is not where the conflict begins, nor is it where the protagonist first meets his/her supporting cast. The story begins where the author first lays pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and begins to construct the universe anew. Presumably, you as a writer have been cogitating on this creation, maybe talking it out or even writing outlines and sketches, and so this universe has been coalescing in your mind before you begin. Still, it’s the physical act of writing the story as a story that commits this universe to its most important stage of reality, because this is where you actually will it into an existence outside of yourself. Even if you’re the only one who sees it, the first steps are now, in a sense, made flesh.
That sounds pretty momentous, doesn’t it? Maybe too much so; there’s definitely a whiff of transubstantiation about that, and that’s a little more than I meant to imply. Then again, this is creation we’re talking about, world building and the construction of characters that are meant to come alive metaphorically. At some level, we should take it seriously, even if you’re a cheerful writer of pulp fiction who aims for nothing more from your work than a beach read, fun for a moment and quickly forgotten.
Ah, but I digress. The point I was aiming at is that whenever the author first starts a story with the idea in mind of it being a story is where it truly begins. That doesn’t preclude writing out a character description, a conversation, an outline or a physical setting, because those are by themselves exercises, useful but not meaning much without an overarching narrative to bind them. When an author strings them together because he or she wants to tell a story, the pieces begin to fall into place, diving into the gravity well of narrative, gaining speed as they fall closer to the author’s intent.
Will a story change in its telling? Probably, especially if you begin without a clear idea of where you’re heading. As you write, you may find that the characters have their own ideas about what to do, or that your plot mechanics are bad and you need to back up, or even that your denouement blows goats. By this time, however, you’re likely in the rhythm of things, and have already found your throughline. It’s OK to rearrange pieces, to toss out what doesn’t work and create all new introductions, plot lines, characters and even resolutions. Rewrite, restructure, bend your universe this way and that to fit what the story needs; it is your creation, and as long as you tell the story honestly and truly, nothing is out of bounds.
With this in mind, the chronological opening to your narrative becomes less important, because it can always be changed. Building a world is not the same as building a house. Putting the roof on before the foundation is built won’t do a damn thing for your house except waste a bunch of money and make you look like a moron, but when telling a story, plots can arise from characters, characters can arise from settings, and dialogue can conjure worlds in motion. You build your worlds as best you can, and when you understand what story you’re trying to tell (if you don’t know when you start), you can reshape things as needed. Thus, the beginning can be as regimented or arbitrary as you need.
There’s a lot of freedom there. It’s exhilarating, and a little scary. But, whatever else it is, it’s yours. Take from it what you can, and use it how you will.