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Start... Uh... Where?

HyenaHell at 1:02AM, Feb. 10, 2017

Huh. You're still here? I'll be damned.

Well then. Let's just go ahead and pick up where we left off last week, which if I recollect, was the beginning. Or at least, that's where you stepped into my world. Now, how you think about beginnings has a lot to do with how you tell a story, which in turn has a lot to do with why you're telling the story. And a beginning isn't always even where a story starts, it's just where you decide to let your reader step into your world, dig?

Now, easiest and most straightforward way to go about it is to give an account of events in the chronological order they occur or occurred, providing just enough information about the who/when/where/why at the start for the action to make sense. While this is the way law enforcement officers prefer you go about it, and it gets the job done, it's also not exactly dynamic storytelling. I mean, the cops HAVE to listen to your story because it's their job to get the facts straight about why that car is in that swimming pool, and who needs to be held accountable, right? But outside of formal or informal interrogations (remember kids, you don't have to answer those questions without an attorney present), we're just trying to tell a good story here, and whether or not anyone sticks around to listen to ‘em depends a lot on how we begin those stories.

So where do you let the reader walk into your world? Let’s look at your narrative in three aspects: the main narrative action we'll call the “present”; this is where the story takes place. Then there's everything leading up to that main action, that explains why these things are happening, and can stretch back anywhere from a couple of hours to the beginning of time; we'll call this the “past”. Then you got what we'll call the “future”, which is positioned decidedly after the main action of the story occurs, reaches its dramatic climax, and is concluded or resolved. You can begin anywhere. C'mon! Let's go!

The present:
Now, taking it from the top like we're giving an account to the cops or writing a history, I done talked about that. In that case, we're beginning the story where your characters begin their story. The peril here is that it takes you too long to explain what's going on and why your reader should care that they check out before you get to the point, let alone the action. They might not want to sit through a detailed history of your super cool futuristic dystopian fantasy world before your hero ever starts blowing up Nazi cyborg orcs or whatever.

Don't like to waste time with exposition? Just throw ‘em right in there, they’ll figure it out. Depending on how different your story's world is from the world your reader inhabits or is familiar with, not knowing exactly what's going on or who the good guy is or what characters' relationships are can keep readers' attention. Ah, good ol' curiosity! That's how you end up fixated on soap operas or telenovelas in waiting rooms, right? It's fun to wonder what the hell is going on in this crazy futuristic dystopian fantasy world… for a while. You eventually have to start giving 'em bits of information. Good writers often spread out these bits of information- the what/when/why/where stuff- as the story progresses to reward the reader at just the right time to keep them wanting to find out more. Do not try that approach with the cops.

The Past:
Who doesn't love a flashback? Besides trauma victims and drug users, that is. Opening your narrative with a scene from before your main action even starts can provide important background or set an atmospheric tone for your characters, world, or plot. Maybe it's the nuclear apocalypses a hundred years before the Nazi cyborg orcs took over, maybe it's a bad sandwich consumed several days before your main character wakes up as a hideous mutant with strange new powers, or maybe it's a scene from a character's childhood that foreshadows events in your narrative present. This can work in a similar “baiting curiosity” kinda way as just tossing your reader into the middle of your world. It can also function to quickly get your readers up to the good stuff by knocking out that pesky who/where/when/why. In that respect, one device is to have a character remembering or looking back on events prior to or leading up to your story's present, or an omniscient and impartial narrative voice detailing the same.

The Future:
Similarly, instead of looking back on the past from a position in the present tense, you could choose to begin after your story's already over! So when the narrative starts, the present is actually the past and the future is the present. Am I like, blowing your mind yet, man? Hell, I ain't even got to “begins with a dream sequence” yet!

There are countless ways to mess around with all this, and next week I'ma talk specifically about some of my favorite beginnings in comics of all kinds, break down what they're doing, why it works to engage the reader, and how it serves the narrative as a whole. There's also a lotta aspects of these concepts I ain't even touched, and a whole lot more that probably could and oughta be added. So in between now and then, what do y'all think? Where do you choose to let somebody into your world, how do you itroduce them to it, and why?



PaulEberhardt at 5:34AM, Feb. 11, 2017

Which brings me to an important point: the bulk of readers of a webcomic often flocks in only when the story has already been on its way for a while, and many don't have the time and patience to work through an archive containing of hundreds of pages straight away (if at all), no matter how awesome it is. So it's often a good idea to have some kind of rough outline of what's going on to pave the way for them until they've had a chance of catching up. That can be a beginning of the more concise sort, or an extra page listing the main cast and perhaps giving a short synopsis. Almost all popular webcomics of the larger sort have that somewhere, just like TV-series. However, the problem that causes is it somewhat limits you with the beginning, namely how much mystery or elements of surprise you can effectively put in there.

PaulEberhardt at 5:34AM, Feb. 11, 2017

Awesome post! All of these ways of starting have an appeal, depending on what kind of story it's supposed to be - provided they're done right. As my comic deliberately has only a very loose narrative frame instead of a grand overarching plot, you might say it's more of the soap-opera type. Way back, I kickstarted it with a few old scribblings and then went right into the middle. I just wanted to get on with it at the time, even if I considered the beginning rather wonky from the start. I've often thought about going back to it and make a "proper" prologue, but it'd come across as me trying to do a prequel, and if there's anything I really loathe it's prequels (as a rule, that is). Besides, new readers tend to grasp immediately what's going on, no matter where they start. The set-up is quite uncomplicated, after all.

Ozoneocean at 9:44PM, Feb. 10, 2017

I like to start slow... tease the audience a little. Just feather light kisses of story to begin with; a little nibble here, a light caress there, just to warm them up you know? Then I'll get a bit more serious, a little more hot and heavy, I'll chew on them for a while and lick the events into shape. Just when they're ready for the first climax I'll switch things up and go in deep. That'll surprise them but they'll be ready for it and I'll ease in slow till they're used to it. I'll work up a nice rhythm with the plot and events as I lead them up to the true story climax. Then maybe I'll change around potions of events and characters a bit to get a better penetration of ideas. Then I'll increase the pace and drive the story hard and fast towards the ultimate reveal and... a disappointing climax that will leave them sore and unfulfilled. Too bad, try again next time! Practise makes perfect. ;)

bravo1102 at 8:43PM, Feb. 10, 2017

Start at the climax. Go up to a cliff hanger. Then go back to how they got there. Then of course you have to decide what is the beginning for the story you'll be telling. Does Typical Strange start at Oscar's birth? Or even his graduation from college? Then there's nonlinear story telling. The narrative jumps around throughout the story and only goes over how it all relates at the end. Slaughterhouse Five has always been my favorite. Though there the protagonist was "unstuck" in time and lived his life out of sequence. Catch-22 begins in the middle and the climax is a final complete telling of a flashback and only then does it become linear to the end. But by then the book is three quarters done. Then there's the old trick of writing it in sequence, throwing all the chapters into a pile and telling the story in the order you pick them up off the floor.

Banes at 10:16AM, Feb. 10, 2017

Agreed! And establishing things as they are before something disrupts the status quo is the way stories are constructed pretty much always. I think a flashback or "flash forward" or some kind of scary/funny/intriguing set piece at the beginning is sort of an "extra piece" to goose the audience a bit or establish whatever tone the story is gonna have. Then the story proper starts at the beginning.

HyenaHell at 7:50AM, Feb. 10, 2017

Since I've been working on the same long form comic for something like 15 years, I er, don't have a lot ofbeginnings. In my writing for the Hub, which is broken up into more or less episodic chapters, and my shorter strips and comics, I tend to use the formula of "pretty normal stuff happening, then something disrupts that normalcy" to start the plot moving. This is basically the formula for every sitcom ever; my favorites to study for structure are seinfield and believe it or not, Green Acres (I got a strong affinity for the absurd, obviously). I try to get to the part where the conflict or disruption causes the characters to reacts or act as quickly as possible, but if you do it well there's definitely a payoff for purposefully misdirecting your reader as to where things are headed- you just have to walk a razor thin line between anticipation and "JESUS Christ is there a point to this?" Structuring writing is something I'll talk about in future posts.

Ozoneocean at 6:38AM, Feb. 10, 2017

I always start at the start. Never give any exposition at all. Exposition is evil... Though I'm sure you could make a great comic that was entirely exposition and nothing else XD

Banes at 6:06AM, Feb. 10, 2017

You crack me up! I'm a fan of starting after the end: "damn! What's wrong, Patty?" - "You won't believe what I've been through", and starting in the middle or at the lowest point or even the end is cool too! Thinking about my own stories, I think I've started every one at the beginning (except one that started with a dream sequence actually. Sort of...)

KimLuster at 4:56AM, Feb. 10, 2017

This is really good stuff...!! And greatly written - in a matter-of-fact smack-talky kinda way... awesome!! Stories I've written (and my one comic here) I tend to begin the story 'in the middle', after some big event (often tragic) and start filling in the reader as the story moves along - Not totally sure I did it right, but too late to edit now haha

Ozoneocean at 1:49AM, Feb. 10, 2017

That sounds disturbingly sexual Bravo...

bravo1102 at 1:43AM, Feb. 10, 2017

Start in the muddle, err... middle and go backwards and forwards at the same time like that animal from Dr. Doolittle.

Ozoneocean at 1:20AM, Feb. 10, 2017

Hippies are always to blame. This is a good meaty post and I appreciate the humour!

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