By Gregory Frost
This is what I have come to believe over time, and what I tell students in writing classes:
Every story you write has two beginnings.
The first one is the one you write to get yourself into the story. It might be anything from paragraphs of telling yourself all about the character, or the conflict, or the situation; it might be all the backfill of information that you need to know in order to dive in; it might be a freewriting exercise, fast and furious and probably comprehensible only to you, a chaos of imagery and phrases. Or maybe you’re a structuralist (which I admit I am not) and you start by erecting the skeleton of your story, constructing a detailed outline or timeline. It is, finally, whatever it takes to get you into the maze that is your story.
This beginning puts paid to the myth that writers don’t start writing their story until they have it all worked out and know exactly where to open—a myth that, I think, creates a kind of pre-emptive writer’s block: “I don’t know the beginning and so I can’t begin.”
The second beginning is the one the story has to have in order to function as a story—and you cannot write that one until you’ve come to the end of (at the very least) your initial story draft and have the whole shape of the journey laid out before you. This isn’t just my opinion. The prolific Joyce Carol Oates will tell you: “The beginning is the last thing I write.” That’s because only when she has arrived at the ending can she aim the story precisely. Until then it’s all hypothetical.
What I find in many workshopped stories by students is that, having reached the end, they mistakenly leave the first beginning in situ, thinking that as it got them to the end of the story, it must be the right place to start. This, in workshops, produces critiques along the lines of “Your story actually starts on page three.”