beginnings, Forrest Gump, Gunnerkrigg Court, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Memento, novels, protagonist, The Graveyard Book, The Hunger Games, The Lottery, The World According to Garp, webcomics, where to start
Start at the beginning, continue through to the end, then stop.
That’s pretty decent advice for storytellers (although it precludes more experimental narrative structures, like in the movie Memento) but if you’re struggling with where to start your story it doesn’t actually help. “Where do I start?” “At the beginning.” “But what is the beginning?” “Um…”
In real life, a person’s story begins at birth and ends at death. Or does it? Even for most of us, whose tales will likely not extend beyond our own personal terminal points, the beginning of our stories are not so clear. Is it at birth? Conception? When our parents met? What about the other direction? High school graduation? Military enlistment? The day we met our long-term partner?
A story, an artificial narrative, should be easier to define. Right? Maybe. Just like the question of where our personal narratives begin, we must ask when the story of our protagonist actually starts. Is it the birth of our main character? Probably not. Yes, a story about a person’s life can work (just look at Forrest Gump or The World According to Garp, but it’s a risky proposition. Maybe I’m just not exposing myself to the right stories, but the “person’s life as a story” seems to be a pretty rare narrative. Most people are simply not interesting until at least their mid-teens, anime and manga protagonists notwithstanding.
So, okay, I’ve established when we shouldn’t begin our story, but I haven’t really helped with advice for when we actually should.
One consideration to determine the start of your story is medium. Simply put, what form are you going to use to tell your story?
Let’s start short. For a short story, you want to begin your story as close to the end as possible. A general rule of thumb I was taught in my fiction writing class is to keep your short story all in the same day (or, you know, 24-hour period, if it happens at night). Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”–an amazing story, by the way, that seems to have at least partially inspired The Hunger Games–occurs over the course of a few hours. But what a few hours those are!
For a longer narrative, say a novel or ongoing webcomic or serial, you want to start at the point the primary protagonist’s life changes in and intersects with the presumably longer narrative. Often, a longer narrative begins when someone enters or exits the primary protagonist’s life. If you’re going to make your main character an orphan, the day he or she becomes one works pretty well for this: it worked for the stories of Harry Potter and for Nobody Owens. On the other hand, if you want your protagonist’s life to change because something (or someone) entered it, the day that person (or thing) is introduced is also an excellent place to start. That’s what happened to Frodo Baggins and Antimony Carver, for example.
This, of course, is a very broad bit of advice, but it should help you at least conceptualize where in the narrative you start your story. If you’d like, we can revisit this topic in the future and look at more specific advice for starting out. I already plan on revisiting the topic at least thrice more: once to talk about the pros and cons of starting in medias res, once to talk generally about starting out in games, and once more to talk about starting games in medias res.
The start of your story is an important topic, after all, since in traditional print storytelling (short stories and novels) the beginning is absolutely the most important part. Without a good, solid beginning, you won’t be able to pull in an audience.
So definitely let me know where you’d like me to go with this idea in the future. And maybe I’ll share some of my own struggles with starting stories.
Come back next week when I look at the start of game narratives.