Start At The Very Beginning…Or Do You?

If you’ve ever watched the movie, The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews leads the Von Trapp children in singing a catchy tune called “Do-Re-Mi”.  In this song, the advice is to “start at the very beginning; a very good place to start…”  While this is true in most cases, it’s not always the case in writing a novel.

I’ve heard it before, but it came up in my class last week that a novel should begin in the middle of the action to rope the reader into the story.  Then, backstory is provided only as necessary as the story progresses.  This gives the reader a little mystery to figure out; how did the main character end up in that predicament?  I’m a curious person, so this formula works like a charm for me.  Much of the time, I’ll read on just to find out what happened.  On the few occasions where the writing didn’t pull me in, I just flip the last chapter to satisfy my curiosity.  I know, that’s bad, but I have to be able to sleep at night 🙂

I just wonder if exceptions to this rule can still be interesting for today’s “gotta have it now” society.   (Today’s novels are much more fast-paced than even twenty years ago.)  At what point does breaking a rule change from a no-no to innovative?  The English language has many rules meant to be broken.  For instance:

  • * “I” before “E” except after “C” (but not always)
  • * To make a noun plural, add “S” (except for words ending in certain letters)
  • * Add “ED” to a verb to show past tense (too many exceptions to begin a list.  Ooh, there’s one:   ‘begin’ becomes ‘began’ in past tense.)

In evaluating my second novel, I’m realizing that it may just be a book of broken rules.  I’m writing it in first person, present tense, even though this isn’t often well-received by readers.  I tried to rewrite it in past tense, but it just didn’t work.  I started the story at the beginning of the trouble, so the reader goes through the process of figuring out the mystery along with the main character. 

For several days, I’ve thought about how to start it in the middle of the action, but for this story, I think it takes away from the mystery.  I haven’t worked on novel #2 since July because I’ve been working on short stories, but I’m almost to a point I can pick it up again.  I’m still on chapter six, but I may keep going with it and see what the final product looks like. 

Are you a writing rule-breaker?  Please share 🙂


10 thoughts on “Start At The Very Beginning…Or Do You?

  1. Brown Eyed Mystic September 27, 2010 / 3:27 AM

    Three cheers for you! I love reading (and writing) in first person. So looking forward to reading what you’ve got 😉


    • jannatwrites September 27, 2010 / 8:31 PM

      Thanks, BrownEyed! I think I’ll go with my gut and keep going with it. What’s the worst that can happen – it doesn’t get published? Oh, well, I’m already there anyway!

  2. Ollin September 27, 2010 / 3:42 PM

    I think my novel breaks a lot of rules. Especially with language. All of my characters are Mexican-American and each represents a spot on that spectrum of the many ways this group speaks. There are people who speak plain english, others who speak advanced english, others who only speak spanish, some who speak broken english, and some who speak straight spanglish.

    I think this would be challenging for any reader and although I do try to make the reader understand the important points, I feel it’s necessary to have some parts they might not understand just to give readers an authentic feel of the world and the characters.

    One thing about breaking rules: I think it helps when the rule your breaking helps push forward an important theme in your book.

    I know that Toni Morrison talked about writing her recent book in first person present tense because the story and characters were very urgent and immediate.

    For what it’s worth, I love it when writers’ break the rules, it’s always refreshing. Keep breakin’ them!

    • jannatwrites September 27, 2010 / 8:40 PM

      Your novel does sound different. I live in the southwest, so I’m familiar with the variations and levels of English spoken. It seems like it would be hard to bring that out in writing, though. Good luck with it…I’ll be sure to check it out when it’s on the bookshelves 😉

      Thanks for your comment and support. I do tend to be a rule follower, which is probably why I started doubting my second novel. Now, it looks like I’ve got some rules to break!

  3. Miss Rosemary September 28, 2010 / 5:12 AM

    Most of the time I do break this rule. For whatever reason it’s more difficult for me as a writer begin in the middle of the story. I can begin at the end and work in flashbacks, but that’s different. Often my stories just have so much action in them that it doesn’t matter that I’m with Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning. Maybe because I’m not that good at writing backstory!!

    • jannatwrites September 28, 2010 / 6:13 PM

      Well, at least you recognize what works for you 🙂 I’m still working on that one…obviously!

  4. darksculptures September 28, 2010 / 8:42 AM

    Last year I wrote my first novel in first person POV. It was a thriller and so I really had to get into the mind of this psychotic nut case to write the part well. Scary thing is…I pulled it off. So, I say good for you if you wrote in first POV. I believe the story dictates the POV and that tense can be an effective tool if used correctly.

    I cite, Flowers for Algernon, as a reference. Count the rules broken in that story and you just might run out of fingers. BUT, a classic story still taught in middle grades.
    Every book that dictates “writing rules” leads the would-be writer astray. I view them more as guidelines based on average performances in specific genre. All of the golden rules have been broken at least once and with measured success.
    Excellent post! Thanks for getting the brain juice flowing.

    • jannatwrites September 28, 2010 / 6:15 PM

      Thanks for your contribution. I’ve read Flowers for Algernon, but I may have to go back and check it out again because I don’t remember the details. (And when I read it in eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay attention to first or third person or tense 🙂

      I do like the ‘rules as guidelines’ approach – thanks!

  5. Barb September 30, 2010 / 6:35 AM

    I’m probably a rule-breaker because I wasn’t aware there were rules when I started writing! 😉 So now I have my own style and my own voice, and I’m trying to adjust to the rules (no omniscient narrator, OK, I got it…) and learn some more…

    • jannatwrites September 30, 2010 / 7:32 PM

      So you’re an unintentional rule breaker? I have to wonder if it’s still breaking the rules if you’re not aware of the rules. I don’t know… It’s good that you’re learning though (that’s a life-long journey!)

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