|Sometimes I visualize my story as a journey down a winding road|
I have a dilemma. I've attempted to write the first paragraph of this post a few times, but I still don't know where to begin. Should I start with the summer drive through Irish lanes to Bunclody with my sister? Or should I talk about how Ireland is a writer-friendly country, so that it was no surprise to find a brochure advertising a free writers' workshop in the village library? Or tell you about the fun we had with Bridget Whelan who facilitated the workshop? Or write a sentence or two about the difficulties of deciding where to start the storyline of my novel?
Sometimes I visualize a story as a journey along a meandering road through the landscape of my novel. Glinda, the witch of Wizard of Oz fame, has a valid point when she says, "It's always best to start at the beginning." A journey and a story both need a place to start, but in a story this choice can be boring if it details a routine daily world with nothing much happening. And a potential reader will yawn, close the book, and look for a more engaging read.
Perhaps it would be better to start my story further down the road, in res media, when "things happen" and my protagonist experiences change and challenges in his everyday world. This would be more interesting, but would my reader care about a character she knows nothing about? Would she continue reading to find out what happens next to a protagonist she does not identify with or relate to because she still has to get to know that ?
Bridget asked the writers at the workshop where they thought a story should begin. After a brief discussion on this topic, she asked if a story should start as close to the end as possible. This was a new idea for me. Could I start my story journey near the end of the road?
She gave us a handout with a fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, and allocated a different point in the storyline to each writer. She asked us to write the story starting at our designated point.
My writing had to open with the witch locking Hansel in a cage. I found this difficult to write as the events that led up to this point were important, and the story wouldn't be much of a read without them. Should I use a flashback? No. If I did that, I might as well start at the beginning. What about dialogue? I took that approach, but soon stumbled over huge boulders of information dumps. I finished the story, but was not happy with it. A long way down the road was too far for me.
We read our stories aloud, and it was an interesting exercise to hear how different each one was. Each starting location lead to a different take on the story—Gretel had low blood sugar and had to get through an electric fence to reach the gingerbread cottage covered sweets, the stepmother bewitched the children's father, the witch and the stepmother were sisters, the witch had a cell phone, the children and father needed counseling—and so the stories unfolded, often resulting in peals of laugher. We saw it was possible to start in different places.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to try different starting points and see which works best for your story. And this could even be a way of brainstorming a road to travel, as each attempt will lead to new ideas and perspectives, which will change the course of the protagonist's journey.
If you are a reader, where do you like stories to start? If you are a writer, where do you like to start? Please leave a comment to let me know what you think.