Frea Interprets Vonnegut — Rule #5

Start as close to the end as possible.

This rule is probably oversimplified...and that was probably more of an understatement than it needed to be.

Knowing where to begin a story is more difficult than a lot of people than think. After all, isn’t it common sense that the story starts, well, at the beginning? To which I counter: what do you consider “the beginning?” Or perhaps “the beginning of what?” Your first chapter might be arguably the most important chapter of all. Your first chapter needs to make a statement. It needs to tell a complete stranger that your story is worth their time.

Complete stranger is the operative phrase. When I said earlier in the series that writing is the ultimate act of ego (you have something to say and you feel complete strangers should sit up and listen), I wasn’t kidding. With that ego, however, come responsibilities. You can’t reasonably expect to waste somebody’s time if you want to keep them listening to you. So keep your story as short as possible.

I’m not saying every book should be fifty thousand words or less (thank the Intersect! Fates would be considered an epic failure many times over!). Length is relative. Don’t stretch things out: tell your tale in as few words as it takes to give the readers the full story. “Padding” your novel helps nobody; it serves only to dilute the hopefully-powerful moments scattered throughout your narrative. But on the other end of the spectrum, also be wary of not telling enough of the story, too (a.k.a. don’t go overboard! Listen to your instincts, but also keep some beta/alpha readers around if you’re nervous about this).

Writing a book, when you look at it on a grander level, is a simple process: you set up a world with rules, you do something to break those rules, and then you write the fall-out. My rule for beginnings: start with the catalyst. It doesn’t have to seem like a big catalyst at first, but your beginning must alter something from your character that sets off your narrative from start to finish. If it doesn’t do this, think about where you’re starting. Is there a bigger, better one down the line? Is that two-chapter discourse on the rules of your society necessary, or can the reader pick that up as she or he goes along?

Also, keep in mind: is the catalyst you’ve chosen the proper catalyst for the story as a whole? I’ll use the book Pride and Prejudice as an example. My main complaint with the book the first time I read it was that I felt the beginning dragged a little. On subsequent rereads (of which there have been many), I discovered that Austen actually starts at a great place—the catalyst for the changes in Lizzie and Jane’s lives: the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield, which to me has greater societal impact than what most people would have considered the ultimate catalyst (Darcy arriving a couple of weeks later). Though the book is about Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance, it is more importantly a look at the personalities in society in that day, and Austen picked a better all-encompassing beginning.

So yes, pick your catalyst and start your story as close to the end of the tale, as befits the tale, as you can. I think that’s what Vonnegut is saying here (but I could be wrong).

Part: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8


  1. Anonymous13.3.12

    To me, this bit of advice is all part of outlining or planning out your whole story. In addition to knowing how to begin the story, you need to know how it will end. Not knowing how their story is going to end is a big problem with some fan fiction writers. They just make it up as they go along and then write themselves into a corner and don't know what to do next. The result: an unfinished story! Before you trap Chuck and Sarah in a pit of poisonous snakes, know how Chuck and Sarah are going to escape from the pit!

    1. For the most part, I agree. BUT...

      I also disagree. Go figure.

      There's two schools of thought on writing. Some people are plotters. They work off of outlines, they take detailed notes, have color-coded cards that tells them a little bit about each character. Others (like me) keep a mental outline and a few notes lying around to keep them on track. But they have a goal and they're going to get there, come Thread, hell, or high water.

      Then you have the "pantsers." These are writers that write by the seats of their pants. For them, writing isn't fun if you know what's going to happen, so they start with their catalyst and go merrily into the fray, hacking their way along until they reach an ending. Some writers can do this brilliantly. Others do fairly well, but treat their first draft as just that: a first draft. They'll craft the tale and then come back and fit the pieces together retroactively, bringing foreshadowing and symbolism all together into one cohesive package.

      This...is really not recommended when you write something serial, like fanfiction, as you don't really get a chance to go back and fix things. But it's not impossible to do, and if that's the only way you can write, then WRITE. Jump into that fray with your elbows out and give just as good as you get. Whatever gets those juices flowing. You're never going to know how far you're going to fly unless you flap your arms, dammit.

      Another note, this one for those on the other end of the spectrum from the pantsers: don't be so blinded by your outline that you miss opportunities. Sure, you may have plotted how to get Chuck and Sarah out of the pit of snakes before you threw them in there, but if some better way comes along, don't dismiss it just because it's not in your outline. Your brain is a marvelous, creative place, and it may be telling you that your original instincts are off, so listen to it once in awhile. I mentioned that I'm a mental outliner, and there's a reason for that: if I put a detailed outline down on paper, it becomes unyielding and sucks the fun out of writing. Plus, there are so many variables that something I thought true in June may be a complete lie by February. Writing, for me, works best when I'm working toward a goal, and if I have to take a slightly different path to get there and stay true to my characters and tone, so be it.

      Basically what I'm saying is: do what works best for you, but stay on target, however you can.

  2. sharpasamarble13.3.12

    The devil of this particular rule is in the last two words: "as possible".

    In order to show change, the reader needs a baseline so he can understand the change. At the same time, few readers will slog through extra chapters at the beginning just so the author can provide that baseline. It's a tricky balancing act, and entire books have been devoted to the subject of beginnings for good reasons. Good beginnings can be difficult to execute effectively.

    Ultimately, I find that starting as close to the end is as much about giving reader less reason to put the story down. The longer it takes to get to the key catalyst event(s), the more likely it is that your reader is going to lose interest and move on to something else.

    (Side note: would Pride and Prejudice ever have become popular today, given how the beginning "dragged a little"? Or would readers have moved on to something that grabbed them more immediately?)

    1. Definitely an interesting point about P&P. I consider it a show of strength for the book's writing that it's done so well in modern times, attention spans being what they are. And with my attention span as spastic as it is, it's kind of a miracle I made it through the book the first time, I think.

      Where to begin is a topic I know you and I have discussed at length in emails, so I was thinking about you when I wrote this post, and hoping you'd chime in. You definitely have the right of it, I feel, with "starting as close to the end is as much about giving reader less reason to put the story down." Every trick you have in your arsenal is necessary to keep the reader reading, especially at the beginning. Not enough information and the reader gets confused; too much and the reader calls your book an infodump and wanders off to something shinier.

      Trust Vonnegut to turn such a complex and dynamic topic into *counts* eight words.

  3. I read somewhere that starting in the middle of something is a great start also. It allows you to get a running start, but also still squeeze some exposition in now and again.

    As far as outlines go, I am writing my first piece with an outline. It is a different experience. I did break away from it once when an idea hit me. From now on I think i'll do more outlining. However, I don't think I can ever give up on running plot bunnies on a whim. They've proven beneficial way to often.

  4. What's this? You mean everyone doesn't just come up with three or four jokes, then crowbar a chapter around them? Bah! I don't believe it!

    1. Well of course not. We're not Fed—maybe I shouldn't finish that sentence.

  5. I am currently attempting (and failing) to write a 3-5 minute movie for film class. I read this article through the lens of filmmaker. Everything that has been said about writing novels applies to making movies.

    For example the opening scene of "The Godfather" (which was originally a book)was the wonderful scene where the baker begs the Godfather to kill the boys who beat up his daughter. It was interesting and gave a lot of information about the Godfather.

    In "500 Days of Summer" the narrator mentions that this is not a love story which immediately grabbed my attention and made the movie stand out.

    Most of my favorite movies have opening scenes that somehow grab me. I'll bet it is the same thing for most people. Chuck is actually a great example. The very firs minute set the tone for comedy and action.

    Great article Frea. I just wanted to add my perspective. Also don't worry about bashing Fedak. He totally choked on the last three seasons.

    On a side if any has an idea for a 3-5 minute movie that can be filmed no budget please let me know :)


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