Starting Block – An Exercise

Photo by photo by Rachel von Hahn

by Lynda Nash

In the Sound of Music, Maria sang: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.’ That might be the case if you’re an ex nun in the Swiss Alps but it doesn’t work so well in short story writing.

From the time we learn to string words into sentences we are told that stories should have a beginning, middle and an end. This is rather misleading because beginning implies just that – the beginning, the first of a series of actions in a chronological order. And students often take this literally: characters are awoken by an alarm clock, they get up, get showered, get dressed, have breakfast, drive to work, park their cars, take the lift to their offices – and the reader is with them wondering if, or when, something is going to happen.

‘When is the story going to begin?’ the reader asks.

In the writer’s mind it already has.

And who’s to say the writer is wrong? There is only one rule in creative writing – if it works it works, and if it don’t it don’t.  Unfortunately, outlining a character’s every move, slows the story’s pace and drains the reader – rather like walking through a boggy field in oversized wellies: you put in a lot of effort but it doesn’t get you very far. Each word, each sentence, each paragraph should move the story forward – if not then it isn’t earning its keep and should be cut.

To help students free themselves from absolute-beginning-itus – which often includes background information, and an explanation of what happened earlier, off camera – I created an exercise called ‘Starting Block’.

It was cold down the well.

‘Help!’ Tommy Robinson screamed.

He wished he had listened when his father told him not to cross the field.

The first sentence indicates where the person is. The second sentence lets you know who they are. The third sentence indicates why they are there. The reader now knows the where, who and why of the story and will be eagerly waiting to find out what happens next and how the character will fair. With three short sentences an intriguing situation has been set up. One that raises questions. Of course, it would have done the same job if we’d written:

‘Help!’ Tommy Robinson screamed.

It was cold down the well.

He wished he had listened when his father told him not to cross the field.

The problem, though, isn’t so much how to begin a story but when to begin it. Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.’  Begin with a bang. Drop your reader straight into the action or in medias res, which is Latin for ‘into the middle of things’, and describes a story that begins somewhere in the middle — usually at some crucial point in the action. The term comes from the ancient Roman poet Horace, who advised aspiring epic writers to go straight to the heart of the story instead of beginning at the beginning.

Bill Naughton’s Seeing a Beauty Queen Home opens with the line, ‘One Saturday night I was dancing at the Floral Hall when the ladies’ “Excuse me” dance came up…’ But imagine if it began, ‘Rudy came home from work, had his tea and then had a shower…’ Or if Billy Weaver in Roald Dahl’s story ‘The Landlady’, took us through his morning ablutions and the packing of his suitcase before he got on the train to London.

Readers aren’t obliged to keep reading, so pique their interest early to ensure they read on and keep inconsequential details firmly locked in your notebook.




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One thought on “Starting Block – An Exercise

  1. Lynda, I didn’t notice! Perhaps you can re-post? By the way, great article as I tend to do exactly what you mention. Your formula sounds very practical and easy to do. I will test it on my newest work. The funny thing is that I’ve noticed that my old mystery novels (still in the editing stage, mind you) start off exactly where they should be but for the life of me, I still have problems with a short story. I wonder why that is??? Is it because a mystery lends itself to these beginnings??? Perhaps I should outline more, even the shortest stories? Anyway I think your formula will come in pretty handy.


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