“Begin at the beginning . . .” Where should your novel start?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end:  then stop.” 

Sounds easy, right? When you’re telling a story, you always start at the beginning, don’t you? Fairy tales always start with “Once upon a time,” and continue through until the prince rescues the princess and carries her off for a life of drudgery and misery, never letting her have a job or a life outside being his trophy wife. (I digress, sorry. I dislike fairy tales.)

The King of Hearts, of course, says this after the White Rabbit asks him where he shall begin to tell the story. For writers, finding that beginning can be hard. Especially when the book is still very much in draft form! Those first few drafts (or, ahem, first few dozen drafts), are where you’re finding the story. Getting to know the characters. Figuring out their problems. Figuring out if their problems are really novel-worthy. You don’t know the beginning, because you don’t know the story, not yet.

A few weeks ago, when all the craziness started and Kansas, along with every other sane state in the Union, instituted stay-at-home orders, I – like probably a lot of other writers – thought, well, this sucks, but I can stay home and write. Get back to my novels, and my research. So, I picked up two of them – my ghost story, and Nicky, my 14-year old rumrunner. I started with Nicky, knowing that of the two, it was the one I might find easiest to get back to.

Yeah. No.

I got to page 36.

Nothing was happening. 

No, that’s not quite right. A lot was happening, actually. But I felt no connection to the story. Or the characters, if I’m honest. I had no idea why. All I knew was that I felt sick to my stomach. I’d spent three years writing a 300-page draft that wasn’t even finished yet, for what felt like nothing. I’d spent three years thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever written! Nicky is the best character that’s ever come to me! and the truth was – I was staring at 36 pages that told me otherwise.

I put it away. Went back to Ghost Hunt. Fell in love with it all over again.

But today, two things happened coincidentally that made me realize maybe there was a lesson in those 36 pages.

The first was that I started editing the first few chapters of a book for a friend. As I read the first two pages, I realized that they were essentially backstory – things that were important, yes, but also things that could be easily worked into the narrative later. Page 3, however, seemed to be where the real story began – with a great hook, an engaging and precocious six-year old, and several questions that I wanted answered. It was just that she hadn’t quite started in the right place. Almost – but not quite! (She just messaged me a bit ago to say, “I thought the same thing – I deleted them a few days ago!”)

Then, I talked to another friend, and in that conversation, I mentioned that failed attempt to start up with Nicky again. He asked why I felt that way.

“Nothing was happening. No tension. It felt like it was all backstory,” I said.

“Aha,” he said. “So does the story start in the right place?”

Me:  (stunned into silence for a minute, because how could I possibly have started a story in the wrong place?!) “Um. No. I mean, I thought it did. When I was drafting it and getting it all down on paper, that’s how it came to me. And it’s all important – we need to know about his dad dying in the war, and the fact that he was accused of disorderly conduct and that’s why Nicky has to support his family and get into the rumrunning . . . but even though there should be lots of tension there . . . there just isn’t.” 

“When I read it, I thought it should have started with your rumrunner doing something, in the middle of a car chase or something,” he said. “Get into it with a great beginning that drags the reader into that next chapter.”

For a split second, I almost said, What? Then why the ever-loving bleeping bleep didn’t you bleeping tell me that BACK THEN?! But then I realized that even if he had – I would have argued with him, because I wasn’t ready to hear it back then. (BTW, if you’re wondering, he read it about two years ago.)

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Because the story doesn’t really get going until they start running whiskey.”

“So all the other information that needs to be in there, you can intersperse. Don’t tell the whole story at one time.” Then he told me about Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which no, I’ve not read. Apparently, it starts in a courtroom with two thugs getting six months for beating and raping a girl. The judge just feigns interest, already knowing what sentence he’s going to hand down. And as the smirking bastards walk out of the courtroom, the girl’s father realizes that “for justice,” he must go to Don Corleone. We don’t know who Don Corleone is. Apparently, we then find out, embedded in fragments over the course of the entire book, that yes, Don Corleone will help, but that he also set up that whole thing just so the girls’ father would come begging on his knees to him. But it’s not told in a linear fashion. You’re given snippets. Hints. Never the whole story. Not at once.

So. In a single ten-minute conversation, I finally understood what was wrong with Nicky. Why my instincts kept shoving it away. I just needed to hear it from someone else. I needed another, honest point of view – but I also needed to realize first that something was wrong with the novel, something inherently wrong.

I really did think that I needed that exposition. Because at heart, that’s all it is – exposition. The kind that eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers were so good at boring us with. Which is what I ended up doing to myself.

Obviously, my friend is right. That exposition has to go. Truthfully, when I think of how to fit it all in to the rest of the narrative, I find that if I’m not telling the story in a linear fashion, there isn’t any way to fit it in – and if I can’t fit it in, is it truly necessary? I mean, it’s necessary to me, to Nicky, to his background, to understanding him. But is it necessary for the reader? Is it necessary to the overall story? Those are some hard questions! And I won’t know until I start those rewrites.

So, with all due respect to the King of Hearts, I have to say that sometimes, beginning at the beginning is not, in fact, the way to truly start your story.