Beginning at the End

Some stories start at the beginning. Some start somewhere else. It’s not always an easy thing to recognize when your story actually begins. I’m still unhappy with how A Beautiful Fiction begins and may need to massage it before publication. For one of my current novels-in-progress (yes, you can tell I’m not a full time writer just by this statement alone I think) I think I’ve just discovered where it truly begins.

You see, as I began last November to write the book I’m now calling My Life in a Minor Key (you may remember my derailed and then failed NaNoWriMo plans) I knew how it would begin and how it would end (a change from how I wrote A Beautiful Fiction, for which I had no plan at all of how it would end when I started). The first and last chapter would be book ends that echoed one another and I had a vague idea that the entirety of the book would be one big literary chiasmus.

I still kind of like the idea of that structure, but it occurred to me randomly and out of the clear blue cloudy gray sky the other day that what I really ought to do is start with the very last chapter. Rather than being a straightforward narrative in which the reader discovers only at the end what has happened to a character, I believe it would be better told already knowing the climax and then backtracking to see what could have possibly led this character to this point.

Breaking Bad Season OneThis is not a new idea. You see it in a lot of post-Tarantino movies. The very first episode (and then many others) of Breaking Bad did just this, starting at the climactic moment of the episode, giving the audience absolutely no background to understand what the heck was going on, and then restarting a bit earlier to fill in all that missing information. The joy of watching in these cases is not discovering along with the characters what will eventually happen. It’s knowing the end and then, like a detective, sorting through all the little events that lead up to it.

Sometimes, if a story is long enough, you as a reader or audience member won’t even remember that you really already know how it will end. Remember how the 1999 film American Beauty started? Kevin Spacey told you he would be dead in less than a year. But I don’t know anyone who remembered that fact by the time they got to the point he actually dies in the movie. (Wait, you’ve seen it, right?)

Thinking of your own WIP, where does the story really begin? What is the most engaging way you can start it so that a reader simply must read on? Sometimes it takes a few chapters of writing to get to that point. Sometimes you need an outside reader to tell you where things really pick up, then try using that as the starting point. If modern cinema has taught us anything, it’s that people really don’t need to know much at the beginning to get sucked into the story. In fact, too much information and exposition up front is kind of tedious.

As for me, I’m beginning at the end this time around. I guess we’ll see how it all works out. Eventually.