Kurt Vonnegut’s Fifth Rule for Writing Fiction
5. Start as close to the end as possible. –Kurt Vonnegut
Last week, I had a student approach me to ask my opinion on something they were working on. The story opened inside a hospital with the birth of a child. I liked the idea immediately, and anticipated some sort of tragic transpiring—mom’s life would be in danger, or baby’s. Or maybe baby would have a tale. Or maybe there was no dad. Or maybe dad was off to war. What an amazing opportunity for conflict.
Unfortunately, nothing so tragic happened. It was a standard birth, with no complications. And while the protagonist (baby) would eventually lead a revolution (I think) and save a world, and while their birth was significant in that regard, the birth itself felt as if it were included because the student didn’t know where else to begin. He’s in very good company.
The story goes, as I recall, that F. Scott Fitzgerald read an early version of The Sun Also Rises. He praised the novel as a whole, but took a few issues with the first two chapters. He gently encouraged Hemmingway to revise them. Hemmingway, in spectacular diva fashion, tore the first two chapters out completely. Turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea.
There seems to be within us, especially as we begin writing, a desire—a compulsion, really—to tell “the whole story.” And we want to start at the beginning so that our readers can know every detail of characters’ lives. The problem is, readers seldom care. What they care about is conflict. And the closer you begin to the end, the more conflict exists, the more readers are immersed in your world.
To do this, it may help to have a rough outline of where you want to go with your story. Find out where you want your characters to end up, then start as close to that point as possible. Some writers actually choose to begin the story a few minutes from the end, then flash back and show everything that happened to lead up to that point (think Thelma and Louise). While that’s an interesting tactic, we can’t use it every time. Sometimes it’s just better to do the Hemmingway bit—write the book, then rip out the first two chapters. Usually, what you’ll find, is that the rest of the story does an excellent job revealing whatever back story is necessary in a more natural way. Besides, doing this well allows you to create a sense of mystery.
But of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Fantasy and Science Fiction, generally speaking, would be the exception. Most readers of these genres understand that they’re in for the long haul. They also expect that most stories in these genre take a certain shape (usually the undertaking of a quest that sets the protagonist on a journey across an unfamiliar world or worlds).
This is a rule that has a lot more play room than some of the others. Which strategy is right for you? Regardless of genre, stories need conflict immediately. Check your novel for which conflict you establish on page one. The second step is to read. A lot. What are the masters doing? How are they doing it? Can you do something similar? It might benefit you to make a list of your favorite books and writers and go back and analyze the opening of each of their beginnings. How close to the end do they begin? What does that tell you about your writing.
For what it’s worth, I actually went back and deleted the first two paragraphs of this post. No lie.