In the Beginning: Doubling Down

By Gregory Frost

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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.”

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About Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost is the author of eight novels and well over fifty short stories of the fantastic: dark thrillers, historical fantasy and science fiction. His latest published novel-length work is the Shadowbridge duology (Del Rey/Random House), voted "one of the best fantasy novels of the year" by the ALA. Recent short fiction includes his collaborative novella with Jonathan Maberry, “T.Rhymer,” is in Dark Duets (HarperCollins); and a collaboration with Michael Swanwick, "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters, H'ard and Andy are Come to Town" in Asimov's Magazine. He is a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (Cambridge University Press), and serves as the Fiction Workshop Director at Swarthmore College.

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In the Beginning: Doubling Down — 6 Comments

  1. This is actually very common for young writers — a lot of rumbling down the runway, wings flapping, before the thing gets up into the air. With most of them I can put my finger on the place where it ought to begin — much further in. The only genius I may have in my own writing is beginning in the right place.

  2. I don’t think this is a problem with young writers so much as with the different perspectives the writer and the reader have. (Because it also works for endings–the author might think an ending perfect, but if everyone else hates it . . .)

    I see this as part of being inside the story. That is, the writer is inside–knows the world, the people, knows what happens. The reader doesn’t.

    For example, take film. The viewer can be puzzled by the subtle ‘tells’ that actors reveal, knowing exactly what comes next in the script. Experts in martial arts can see the choreography in fight scenes, the effort not to hurt one another, the expectation of the next blow. In a real fight? Just the opposite. Editors of films have been over the material so many times that they will make cuts they think are boring or obvious that actually stitch the story together for the viewer.

    Back to writing/reading. First off, the reader isn’t as invested as the writer, so the “get the background up front” beginning that is interesting to the author is deadly dull to the reader who doesn’t care yet. Or, the in medias res beginning–in the middle of action–is exciting to the writer, but the reader is bewildered, and not knowing who anyone is or what’s going on, doesn’t care.

    I know writers of great experience and popularity who inevitably have to either cut or add three chapters to their beginnings, and totally revamp endings they thought were clear. Well, they were clear–to the writer “inside” the story.

    • So true. Which is why the beta reader is so important — someone who has never seen the story before and can ask, gently, “Who is this guy? What, is this a light saber?”

  3. For me, beginnings are like titles. Every once in a while, I know exactly the right words, the tone, the rhythm, the imagery. Most of the time, however, I flop around with utter drivel JUSTSTARTSOMEWHERETHENTEARITUP. “Working titles” like “Prehistoric Alien Ruins From Hell.” A paragraph of begging the protagonist to speak to me.

    The difference between how I did this 30 years ago and how I do it now is that I’m so much gentler with myself. I know I don’t have to get it right. I just have to get going and at some magical point, the gold will shine and the dross will fall away.

  4. Pingback: Doubling Down, a blog post on beginnings | Gregory Frost

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