So I’m thinking, this morning, about how I’m going to start this thing. I know, I probably should have done this a while back, but, well, life’s been pretty engaging lately, and so here I am, not quite procrastinating yet, since I haven’t finished my coffee and oatmeal. But pretty soon I will be.
Given how much the story revolves around my protagonist, Sergeat Lee Victorius, it seems like the first thing I need is an establishing shot, as it were; something to give the reader a sense of who he is (or, rather, was, before his involuntary tour of duty) as well as some sense of the world he lives in. I’m thinking maybe a brief montage of his life before the war, his (possibly wrongful) arrest, and the trial where his extenuating circumstances are ignored by the judge for reasons so patently unjust and unfair as to make a reader’s blood boil.
Alternately, I could just throw the reader right into some kind of exciting sci-fi military action, with small arms fire and explosions going off in the near distance as our protagonist engages in some hard-nosed derring-do and perhaps loses a beloved companion to the vagaries of war.
Either way, we’re looking at a prologue, something to establish a little bit about who this guy is and where he comes from, since I believe those things will prove important as the story develops (it’s funny: I’ve been thinking about doing this project for a long time, but I haven’t actually worked out very many of the details). And while I’m tempted to start with the latter, because who doesn’t love gunfights and explosions (I know I do), I think I’m better served beginning with the former, with the glimpse of his life before the war, and how he came to serve in it. War is hell, of course, and the war will hover in the background of the story for the duration (being such a formative experience for our hero, after all), but this isn’t a war story, and I think leaving the things that happened there to the reader’s imagination will better serve the narrative. Perhaps there will be flashbacks.
But I think it’s more important to start with some character- and world-building, even if it’s a little less exciting, because if you don’t care about the character then why read the story?
What do you think?
3 thoughts on “It Begins…”
I think a flashback to some pivotal episode from his youth or early childhood, in which you can do a bit of world-building as well as provide a bit of character background. Something along the lines of the opening of Against a Dark Background.
One thing I’ve learned from writing poetry and essays is that what I think the beginning of the piece will be is almost never what the beginning of the piece ends up being. Start at the place that draws your attention. Craft the sentence. Then another. Craft the paragraph. See if you then want to write the paragraph that comes next, the paragraph that would come before, or another paragraph altogether. Print them out. Arrange them. Rearrange them. Don’t throw any out! After years of writing short poems and hanging them on his walls, Denis Johnson realized he had an actual book (The Incognito Lounge). My process may be different from yours, though. If I already had an outline for how I was going to structure a piece of writing, I’d lose interest in writing it.
I, too, often find that I have to write my way into something, and that the beginning isn’t always where I think it is. The thing about this particular project is that I know how everything comes out in the end (because the story began as background for another story I’ve been working on forever), but I never really gave much thought to the protagonist’s origin or motivations. Now that I have, it seems to be coming easily enough (the works behind the scenes, anyway; generating actual word-count has been pretty slow, at least at the pace I’m usually able to write). I feel like I’ve managed to show a little bit about the world it all takes place in, and demonstrate my protagonist being a stand-up guy as well as set up some conflicts and things that will come up again later, all of which makes me happy, though who knows how much will make it to final cut. Still, I feel like for a narrative that revolves so much around a single character I need to establish who he is and what he’s about pretty quickly.
It’s funny, though. You’re not the first person I’ve ever talked to who says they lose interest if they know where a story is going. For me, though, when I don’t know where I’m going, I just end up wandering around in circles and padding until I figure it out. My process seems to involve deciding where I want to go, and then figuring out how to get there. In essence, I give myself problems, and then try and solve them. But I suspect everyone’s got their own way of doing things, and that’s a-ok by me.