Telling A Story (1) – Where to Begin

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When you decide to tell a story, be it written or spoken, you need to find a good place to start.  Starting your story can, in fact, be one of the more difficult parts of telling the entire thing.  Your beginning is technically one-third of your story, and if it’s not done well it can throw off the flow for the rest – or worse, lose your audience entirely.

If you start too far back, you can fill your audience with unneeded information, and a slow-paced adventure that they have no interest in finishing.

If you start in the middle of things, you’ll constantly be going back to explain and exposit the information you missed.  Breaking up your story with too much exposition will ruin your continuity and flow.

Yet finding a balance is different for every story your telling.  If you’re trying to explain to a friend what you had for lunch, maybe you don’t need to start two weeks ago when your car broke down at work and you lost 3 hours of pay. And yet if you’re telling them who you ran into at lunch, it may be important to note that you were only eating cheap because you had lost hours working.  That coincidence is why that may be needed information.

The information you chose to include should either be a “cause and effect” setup or service to show something about your characters that we should know ahead of time.  If your main character is someone you’ve made up, or you and your own life, you need to ensure you have a reason for most of the information you give to your audience.

If you’re telling a story about a naive farmhand who grows up to become a knight, it may be pertinent to tell us about their birth.  But maybe not right away, if the next eighteen years of their life are relatively uneventful.  You’ll want to give your information in such a way that you’re audience feels like they are along for the ride instead of just watching events unfold.

You may be tempted to jump straight into the action right away.  Perhaps even going “in medias res” with your story (An entire section will be dedicated to that in a future date).  And while this can be an exciting way to get into your story, you have to be careful not to miss too much of the story you’re trying to tell.  While Hamlet opens after the death of Hamlet’s father, the play goes on to show you his story.  Even though his father’s death is the event that kicks much of the story off.  The play doesn’t open with Hamlet dying and cutting away to a “here’s how I got here” trope (personally I despise this trend in media, but I suppose there’s a market for everything).

Choosing where to begin is difficult.  It’s an art that you have to work on.  And here’s my cop-out.  I can’t tell you where to start your story.  It’s your story.  All I can tell you is that you need to pay close attention to where you decide to begin, as it can influence and set the tone for the rest of your story.

My only hint can be this – what I do.  I’ll typically plan out in my head or on paper a rough timeline of all the events that lead to where my story begins.  Be it a real-life event that I’m sharing with someone or a work of fiction.  I’ll look at the full timeline and look around 15-20% in, and find an event in there that I can begin with (or where my main character first is introduced to the major plot).  Eliminating as much unneeded or uneventful information as you can, will help you ensure that your story is off to a strong and engaging start, straight from page one.

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