Where to start?
A shaky shot of snow and mountains, with a very tiny helicopter flying over them. Later, we realize we’re seeing from the point of view of a dog, who, we’ll realize later still, is an alien.
Or here? “Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”
Or even here: “Of man’s first disobedience, the fruit . . .”
Where we start a narrative is more than just a hook. Whether we’re discussing the opening scene of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the first sentence from my favourite book It Happened in Boston? by Russel H. Greenan or even the first line of the 26 line first sentence of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the opening of a narrative determines not just how a story unfolds, but what that story is.
Take the first line of It Happened in Boston?. Crazies are a good way to get attention, but this opening does more than that: it establishes a point of view that can’t quite be trusted, a series of events that we as readers must question. It sets up a story that has to convince us - slow, detailed, with constant unease. A different opening for this novel? A different novel.
Beginnings for readers
Where we start is often how we understand. Teachers know this well. They use something called ‘scaffolding’ to teach concepts. Scaffolding means starting at a very small point, mostly to gauge existing understanding of a concept, and then building concepts onto that point.
My friend Eliza Bobek, who is a science teacher in Brooklyn, told me about how she teaches kids about chemical bonding and atoms.
First she tells them that atoms exist in different places - that’s her opening. Once they understand that concept, she explains why certain bonds between atoms happen, and then how some bonds make elements more stable. What happens next is entirely in her audience’s hands: her students almost always make the leap (on their own) to understanding atoms as a whole: the location of elements on the periodic table has to do with their stability.
All those concepts were ‘scaffolded’ together, and that specific presentation of facts aided the students’ understanding. Further, the students’ understanding was a kind of scaffold in itself - it was the linking together of concepts.
If the goal of reading is understanding, then the beginning determines the structure of the explanation - and how effective that explanation is.
Beginnings for creators
Where you start writing is almost never where someone starts reading. Most of the time this is because where you start writing is for you, and not your reader. Writing should be as much an exploration of a topic as an output.
But let’s start backwards, shall we?
There are many ways to begin a story, and one of them is the ‘beginning’. But what is the beginning? The Oxford English dictionary has many definitions, some of which are:
- The action or process of entering upon existence or upon action, or of bringing into existence; commencing, origination.
- The point of time at which anything begins; absol. the time when the universe began to be.
- That in which anything has its rise, or in which its origin is embodied; origin, source, fount.
- The earliest or first part of any space of time, of a book, a journey, etc.
- The initial or rudimentary stage; the earliest proceedings. Often in pl.
- An undertaking. Obs.
What’s interesting in these definitions is that one of them is the ‘process of entering upon action’ while another is ‘the earliest part of any journey.’ Those aren’t the same thing.
If you’ve ever shown up late to a dinner party, you’ll know that all the participants had different beginnings. So if there’s a story about that party, how will it start: when the first guest arrived? When the last guest arrived? When the host started cooking? When the host sent the invites? Or if Wernor Herzog is telling the story, when the food started growing?
The way to answer where to start is to figure out where you want your audience to go.
People who create games and immersive stories are very interested in what they call ‘entry points’ (what we’d call beginnings). They need engaged and returning users, so the entry point needs to give enough facts about the environment so the audience isn’t totally confused, but leave enough unknown so they’re intrigued.
We should look backwards to find a master of beginnings: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was one of the writers who defined the crime fiction, which followed quite a rigid structure.
The Purloined Letter was one of his most famous stories. The opening scene is two men, one of them his famous detective character August Dupin, sitting in silence and smoke. The narrator is thinking about a conversation they had earlier:
For myself, however, I was mentally discussing certain topics which had formed matter for conversation between us at an earlier period of the evening; I mean the affair of the Rue Morgue, and the mystery attending the murder of Marie Roget.
The opening scene could easily have started with that exact conversation. But the fact that it’s just a memory means you only know that there was a murder, you don’t know the details yet. You get the gist, and you’re aching to know more. The silence and the smoke add to the mystery.
When you think you need to tell people everything immediately, give them some credit, and read a Poe story.
For those of us who aren’t writing fiction, the beginning is just as important. You’re always telling a story, no matter what you’re writing.
Many companies know this, and do a good job of building a narrative around their products. Take, Mastercard, for example (for whom I’ve done no design work - the following is my unbiased analysis).
If you’re looking to get a credit card, a big part of your decision may be the APR, or it may be the credit limit, or it could be a commercial that you saw. Your entry point is different depending on what you care about. So if Mastercard makes all those things easy to find, they’re golden.
But they need to tell a story about themselves. If you start at MasterCard’s homepage, you’ll immediately see something that has nothing to do with the concept of credit:
Their primary entry point is what you can do with a credit card - the inspirational thing that money can buy (travel, happiness, true love). This will seep into our subconscious, even as we go straight to the thing we’re looking for, which if you’re looking for a credit card, is the ‘products.’
The beginning of the purchase funnel looks like this:
All the information you have at first is a title (with increasing levels of prestige), an image, and a sentence that explains in only positive terms what you can do with that credit card. There are hundreds of other things you need to know, but you don’t need to know them right away. Mastercard are parsing out the information, creating a story of credit success.
Where to end?
Where we start can determine where our readers go, so your ending must be clear to you before you begin. And that’s all I can say about endings, as I’m quite bad at them. You can, like me, just say ‘the end.’
Ed: The hero image is by Chris van Allsburg, from the Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Our image captioning is buggy, and I want to give him due credit while we sort it out.