Writing is a huge and complex beast. Harry Bingham once said the trouble with writing, unlike visual art, is that you can’t take a glance at the finished product. You can look at all the details independently. You can get a sense of what’s happening at the word, sentence, or paragraph level. You might even be able to visualize a whole chapter at once, if you’ve got half an hour.
But you can’t just sit back and easily take in an entire piece of writing like you can, say, a painting or a sculpture.
For this reason, I can spend quite a lot of work time staring out into space, trying to visualize stories in my mind. (Yes, I'm still working when I do that. Without the thinking, the writing would never happen.) I freewrite in my handy-dandy Rocketbook. I use notecards or my trusty writing software, Dabble, to shuffle things around. I make spreadsheets where I map out word counts, timelines, and whose perspective we’re following.
But, sadly, I can't get a really good look at the piece without reading the whole of it. And that takes time.
One of the hardest things for me has always been figuring out where to start. And I guess that's because the story's always happening. Life (even fictional characters') is a film that's constantly rolling, and it's hard to know at what point to let the viewer - er, the reader - in. Too early, and they might lose interest. Too late, and they might get confused.
Here are some sample beginnings from an essay I wrote.
I was picking up speed and about to merge onto the highway. I looked over my shoulder to assess the oncoming traffic. Big 18-wheeler in the second lane, but the first was clear. Easy peasy. Except when I turned to face forward, everything went black.
Nope. We're already into the action here, and there's some crucial background left out. What happened before everything went black? Why did it go black? In a book, some writers will use a scene like this as a prologue, starting in the middle to get readers intrigued before going back to the beginning and showing what was happening. But for the story I was trying to tell, this got into the action a little too quickly.
Back in high school, I used to wake up with a stabbing pain in my gut. My doctors couldn't figure out what it was, even after about a dozen tests. One doctor even prescribed antidepressants, in an effort to see if decreasing my stress level would help. (Spoiler: it didn't.)
Bo-ring! This is good background, but if you don't know me, you aren't likely to care too much about this background. It can easily be peppered into the actual story in a way that doesn't bore the reader.
I needed something in the sweet spot between providing so much background that the reader gets bored and stops reading before the story really gets going, and thrusting them into a scene that's compelling but confusing because they don't have enough information to make sense of it.
Finding this balance has been the absolute bain of my existence for as long as I've been a writer and storyteller. I think I've gotten better over time, but that doesn't mean I'm any good at it.
Here's that essay. I'd love to know what you think about how I ended up beginning it. Ping me in the comments and let me know!
Oh, speaking of endings. That's another troublesome one for me. Stay tuned for more on that.