Where Does a Story Begin?

Credit: keencarlene | morguefile.com

I’ve heard it said so many times that it has almost become trite. A story begins the moment the main character confronts profound change.

I’ve also heard it said that writers tend to write their way into their stories.  We often need to lop off our first ten, twenty, thirty pages when we find our beginning.

But that isn’t me, I’ve always told myself.  By the time I sit down to write, I know exactly where my beginning lies.  In fact, I can’t remember a single time when I’ve had to lop off those opening pages.

Until now.

I’m currently working on a novella about a nine-year-old boy, Ben, and his dog, Sunshine.  The story is intended to be young, short, straightforward.  And knowing about beginnings as I do, I began with Ben listening to his father’s side of a telephone conversation with his mother, whom neither of them has seen for six long years.  Ben is about to discover that a new divorce agreement gives his mother the right to have him come visit . . . for a whole month.

A big change.  Right?  A good place to launch my story.  And my first two chapters were all about exploring and reacting to that change.

But there is something else going on.  There is always something else going on in my young, short, straightforward novels.  Sunshine, the dog, is presented as though she is a real dog, but she is only as real as Ben’s imagination can make her.  She is, in fact, a creation of his three-year-old mind, one that has hung around all these years as a creative substitute for his disappeared mother.

So, of course, my readers have to discover that, too, not just that Ben’s mother is going to be a problem for him to struggle with, but that the dog they have been introduced to in so visceral a way isn’t really there . . . except in Ben’s imagination.  I’m playing with my readers’ minds, making them believe in Sunshine as Ben does before allowing them to see Ben struggle to keep up his belief.

And so I began my story with Ben sitting on the stairs, one hand twined in Sunshine’s soft fur, trying to understand his father’s conversation. By the end of the first chapter, Sunshine vanishes and we understand, for the first time, the world we are in.  By the time we meet Ben’s mother in Chapter 3, my story is thoroughly set up.

And thoroughly is the operative word here.  My opening chapters were very thorough.

But the complexity of balancing these two situations, the long-ago disappearing mother, the newly disappearing dog, prompted me, when I was only about half-a-dozen chapters in, to seek out a reader.

On first reading, she pointed out some of the situations with Ben’s imaginary dog that she didn’t find believable. I rethought/rewrote those parts and moved forward.  I showed her those chapters again, and this time she was content with Ben’s imaginary dog.  But she surprised me by saying, “I wonder if this novel doesn’t start with Chapter 3.”

“Oh, it can’t,” I said.  “Because this is your second reading I think you’re missing the impact of the revelation that the dog is in Ben’s mind.  That’s what the first chapter is for, to reveal that.”

Clearly my conviction overpowered the conversation because she didn’t argue.

A bit of travel took me away from the manuscript for a week or so, and when I came back, I did what I always do when I’ve been interrupted.  I returned to page 1 and began rereading to get myself up to speed.

And guess what!  I found myself slogging through the reading of Chapters 1 and 2.  By the time I got to Chapter 3, I was relieved to discover that my story really did have a beginning.  Not the chapter as it was written, of course.  I had to present everything differently because that chapter now had no back story to lean on.  But my reader was precisely right.  My story began with Chapter 3.

One of the blessings of being a seasoned writer is that you keep making new mistakes.

And then can learn from them.

8 thoughts on “Where Does a Story Begin?

  1. lindenmcneilly

    That makes sense, Marion. My trouble with a current manuscript is that the overriding precipitating event takes place before the main character is born, so has no knowledge of it, but without it the reader has no idea the importance of what’s going on. So it feels in a way like a prologue, and I wouldn’t know how to weave it into the present story since the mc doesn’t have a memory of it. Such is the fun of writing, right?

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  2. Norma Gaffron

    Hi Marion,
    You always take on such tough subjects – and then deal with them so masterfully!!
    I found a quote the other day that I’ve been waiting to share with someone:
    ” Stories never really end …even if the books like to pretend they do. Stories always go on. They don’t end on the last page, any more than they begin on the first page.”______Cornelia Funke

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  3. Janet Fox

    Marion, once again you’ve hit the nail on the head. I pushed back against lopping off the first 30 pages until, when I did it as an experiment, the heavens opened and I uncovered a much stronger opening. I guess it’ll be a learning curve until I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    Reply
  4. lindenmcneilly

    How does an author resolve a beginning that depends on another, profound event that happened way before the current story, but must be included or the reader will have no way to sense the tension or understand the importance of its relevance? For example, if your story was focused on the imaginary dog (and Ben needing to face reality about it) rather than the disappeared mother, would you feel you needed to show the event in which Ben lost his mother and replaced her with the dog?

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      No, Linden. I didn’t need to show the connection between the dog and Ben’s mother right away. In fact, that understanding comes much later, partly because Ben doesn’t yet understand it. But the question you’re asking is one we face with most stories. When and how do you weave in backstory? Sometimes you have to decide whether it is, indeed, backstory or whether the precipitating event should be your story’s opening. Sometimes writers put the back story in a kind of Foreword, though I think that’s risky. Lots of readers, especially young ones, skip those things. And the leap into the present of your story then feels abrupt. The best solution usually is to weave the backstory in, most often in small chunks, when necessary in a lump, as the story moves along. Traditionally I’ve found that Chapter 3 is often a good place to pull in back story. By that time your reader is truly committed to the forward movement of your story and won’t be put off by the pause necessary when turning to the past. But there is no single solution. Every story demands it’s own. In the story I’m working on now, I had to weave in some of the backstory, the mother’s having left, the reason Ben is seeing her now, into Chapter 1. The rest I left for much later.

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