Writing Tip #1 - You don't have to start at the beginning

Sometimes the most exciting way to begin your story is to skip the beginning altogether.


It sounds strange, but it really works.


Sometimes a beginning turns into a great big, multi-chapter information dump, which can be really frustrating and slow-going for the reader; particularly when they're an audience that is more interested in the action of a scene than the richness of details.


This is a trick a lot of action films employ, where we join the protagonist in the middle of an action sequence. We go from the blank screen following opening credits to sirens wailing and the lead character is running through city streets after the elusive shadow of the baddie... Instantly, the reader is engaged, thrown right into the story in a sink or swim manner.


The bonus for you, as the author, is that you're able to savor the excitement, too, and this often allows you to begin your story with the scene that you've been imagining all throughout the brainstorming process. Maybe it's the scene that inspired the whole book. Maybe it mirrors or foreshadows something to come, or maybe it's a teaser and the reader is about to be enveloped into a long flashback that will reveal just how the character got to where they are now.


It's a great technique and it's a lot of fun to write this way. An example from my own writing would be the "Order of the Phoenix" book from the Marauders, which features chapters set in 1993 interspersed between chapters set in the late 1970s. The chapters in the 90s give the readers glimpses of characters as they exist in the future while the story unfolds. How did Remus and Sirius end up where they each are in the 90s compared to where they are in the 70s? What caused the great divide between the characters? Suddenly the tension is palpable and the reader is caught up in a world of "whys" and "whats" as they try to figure out the sequence of events that connect the two different settings.


There is, of course, a danger to writing from the middle of the story that must be carefully avoided - you don't want to lose your reader's interest by muddling the story too much in the attempt to create an interesting "fold" in the storyline. The writer has to be careful to tread a fine line between intriguing and confusing.


So how does one deliver enough information during a folded storyline without burying their reader under a mountain of details?


First, even though your story doesn't start at the beginning, you need to at least know what the beginning is. You'll want to start a list of "before and after" to reference. Before X moment, your character will be one way and After, they must be different than they were Before (for better or worse) or else the entire story has no purpose.


Since the season just passed by, we'll look at A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens for an example. In the beginning, Ebenezer Scrooge is a financially-obsessed man - a miser - who doesn't enjoy Christmas or the company of anyone else in the world. Throughout the book, Ebenezer goes through a series of visitations from Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present/Future. As he is visited by these ghosts, Ebenezer realizes the things he's taken for granted. By the end of the book, Ebenezer Scrooge is sitting at the head of a beautiful Christmas feast, singing joyful songs with the others. His experience with the Ghosts changes him and that is the purpose of the story. Imagine a Christmas Carol without Ebenezer being... well, Ebenezer? It just wouldn't be the same, would it? The story revolves around that detail.


Now the way that Charles Dickens handles the story starts at the very beginning (with the death of Scrooge's partner, Jacob Marley). There is a clear before (Scrooge is a scrooge!) and a clear after (Scrooge loves Christmas, yay!) and the turning point is the visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present/Future.


So let's say you were the author of A Christmas Carol for a moment and consider the before and after being presented. If you wanted to use a folded storyline, you might open with the visitation from Christmas Present and show Scrooge watching the Cratchits sitting down to eat their meager meal with Tiny Tim. You open with Scrooge's observation of the family bustling and preparing, and finally settling down. There's action and the reader is shown that the Cratchits are poor but joyful and the first person narrative told by Scrooge sounds almost confused by this scene, as though the character whose point of view we are seeing is unfamiliar with the concept of joyful families... The reader watches along with Scrooge as the Cratchits settle into their seats at the table, someone gently helping Tiny Tim onto his stool and leaning his crutch against the hearth for safe keeping. Maybe Scrooge focuses on that crutch, a detailed description of the worn nature of the wooden support is given until Scrooge is pulled from his reverie in thoughts of the young boy's suffering by the sound of his own name as Bob Cratchit lifts his glass in recognition of Ebenezer himself. Suddenly, at the sound of his name, Ebenezer is launched into a moment of self realization that flashes back to the beginning of the story, picking up at the scene with the ghostly door knocker and the arrival of Jacob Marley the dead business partner.


In this example, the fold is at the turning point of Scrooge's story arch; it's the moment when he first starts thinking of someone besides himself. The plight of Tiny Tim and the compassion Scrooge feels for the boy changes his heart. Then, we flash back to see how he got to this lonely space where a vision of mercy and kindness is so foreign to the man that it is capable of leveling years of spiritual hatred.


You can see this style of starting somewhere besides the beginning even in Harry Potter - especially when you view it through the lens of the Marauders. The Harry Potter canon begins with the death of Voldemort in the Marauders era, and the moment when Harry himself is rescued from the rubble of the house in Godric's Hollow to be carried by flying motorbike to the home of Vernon and Petunia Dursley. Before this scene, there are battles and music and love and drama, friendship and marriages, alliances and betrayals that lead up to the moment when Lily Potter's love stops the Dark Lord in his tracks. The story of Voldemort's evil and the havoc that he has wrecked on the Wizarding World has been folded and we only find out the backstory of the Marauders in flashbacks, though their contribution to the story is so great that one could not understand the full effects of Harry Potter without understanding the beginnings that come from the Marauders' era.


C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia books used to do this as well. While the reading order has since been amended, originally the Narnia series began with what is now considered Book Two, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Magician's Nephew, which is now considered Book One, was once Book Six, and contained important backstory that was needed to conclude the series in The Final Battle. C.S. Lewis originally shared The Magician's Nephew as a flashback into the history of Narnia.


It's like beginning the Bible in the New Testament and flashing back to Genesis.


I think you get the idea.


The use of this writing tool can of course be over done or done incorrectly. It can result in an information dump. Even J. K. Rowling fell victim of the information dump in The Prisoner of Azkaban when a great deal of information had to be revealed in the Shrieking Shack scene to allow everything to make sense. The information was shared as a long winded conversation/series of speeches delivered by Remus Lupin and Sirius Black as they debate whether to kill the rat that is Peter Pettigrew and convince the trio to allow them to do so. Although it was well done, there's a lot to say for creatively weaving facts in to avoid such a pile up at the end.


Take Aways:

1. Don't be afraid to begin from the middle and fold your storyline.

2. Remember to avoid the Big Information Dump.

3. Know the beginning even if you don't start there.

4. Remember to have a "before and after" with your character for any storyline - the events of the story must change your character or else your story has lost its purpose.


I hope this writing tip helps you on your way to penning your own stories - come back for more writing tips in the future. Until next time, may light shine upon your face and your hours of writing be filled with joy and your life be filled with love, love, love.


With all my heart,

HG.

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