Let's Begin with ... Beginnings

Has this ever happened to you? You sit down to write, and suddenly you're plagued with self-doubt. You have a lot to say, but you just don't know where to start.

Well, that's what happened when I sat down to write this newsletter. I have so many great ideas I want to share with you. But where do I begin? Do I start with the questions that get asked most often in my classes? Do I start with a glossary, to make sure we speak the same "narrative" language? Or maybe I should start with something sexy and clickbait-y, like, "The 5 Rules of Narrative Storytelling the Pros Don't Want You to Know."

Nah. That would just be silly.
Get Narrative Beat in your inbox
Subscribe now!
The truth is, the most important part of a story -- any story -- is the beginning. So let's start there.

One quick aside. You might have heard me say that narrative stories are built around a "before, during and after." And that's totally true. But stories have to begin somewhere. And deciding where -- and how -- to begin a story is super important.

I often turn to Nancy Updike of This American Life for inspiration on this subject. (That makes it sound like Nancy and I are buddies. This is not the case. But I've obsessively consumed her Transom manifesto and Third Coast talk, so I feel like -- given the opportunity -- Nancy and I might become friends.)

Some people say that to get over writer's block, you should start writing your story in the middle -- where the stakes feel lower. But Nancy told Third Coast that she can't imagine beginning anywhere other than the beginning. The start of a story is just too important. It's the foundation on which everything else is built.

Nancy has written some great beginnings. Here's one she likes to share:
Sissies, This American Life, Dec. 13, 1996

"This story is like one of those Russian dolls where there's always a smaller one inside. The smallest doll, the core of the drama, is the fact that Mubarak, a childhood sissy, grew up to be a different kind of sissy than his father. His father is nerdy and bookish. Mubarak's gay.

"Everything around that core gets bigger and bigger until finally you can't believe the biggest and the smallest have anything to do with each other, the one is so bloated and the other so tiny."
Some great beginnings, like Nancy's, are complicated. But you don't need a fancy metaphor to write a compelling open. Here's one of my favorites, written by my former Only A Game colleague, Martin Kessler.
Violette Morris, Only A Game, Feb. 24, 2017

"Violette Morris had already been dressing like a man for years when Hitler invited her to Berlin to watch the 1936 Olympics."
It's simple. It doesn't take up too much valuable time. And I don't know about you, but I really want to hear the rest of that story!

And that brings me to my corollary to Nancy's "begin with the beginning" rule.
To write a good beginning, first figure out how your story ends.
Now, I don't mean that you should write your ending first. Sure, I like to have an idea. I might even jot down a few notes. But I like to wait until the end before I write the end.

But the beginning of your story signals all sorts of things to your audience. It might set your story in a time and place. It might introduce your main character or establish your voice or the voice of your storyteller.

Most importantly, the beginning of your story sets the theme of your story. It gives your audience a framework through which they're going to understand everything that happens later. Signal the wrong theme, and you've missed an opportunity to add meaning to your story.

When I gather tape, I'm constantly thinking about where my story might begin. I know that I'm going to want more detail for that opening scene. So I'm constantly asking myself, "Is this where I'm going to start?" If so, I start digging deeper.

A few years ago, reporter Shira Springer and I were interviewing a former college football player who helped organize a boycott for equal rights. One of the first things he said to us was, "We used to meet at midnight, to lay out our thoughts and plans, just like the slaves."

Shira and I locked eyes across the studio and immediately started asking follow-ups.

"Where did you meet?"
"Who else was there?"
"Were you afraid of being found out?"

The answers to these questions helped us to add context and texture to the open of our story.
Syracuse 8, Only A Game, Nov. 17, 2017

The Syracuse 8 held some of their secret meetings on campus. But whenever they were hungry, they went to Ben's Kitchen.

They were all working class kids from inner cities. And they talked about their plans over plates of barbecue chicken, collard greens and cornbread--among the prostitutes and hustlers and the nightly craps game.

ALIF: For the people of color in the city, that was the place, that was the joint. When all the other places closed, there's a place where you would go to get something to eat.

DANA: And trust me, there were no spies or infiltrators there.
And that brings me to my second point:

Don't be afraid to change your mind.

In 2019, I interviewed Brenda Tracy, a gang rape survivor who works with sports teams to end sexual violence. I planned to start my story with a recording of Brenda on stage. So I asked a lot of questions about what its like to tell a room full of strangers about the worst day of your life.

But when I sat down to write, I realized that the core of my story was how Brenda came to work alongside the football coach who had not held his players accountable for her rape. If I started with the present day, with Brenda standing in front of a group of athletes, I'd be signaling the wrong thing.

So I started with Brenda and the coach.
Brenda Tracy, Only A Game, Jan. 25, 2019

It was the fall of 2014. Brenda Tracy had just turned 40, and she was in crisis. After years of trying to ignore what had happened to her during the early morning hours of June 24, 1998, she'd finally started seeing a therapist.

BRENDA: I felt like I'd opened Pandora's box — and I didn't know what I was going to do, and I didn't know how to find closure. So, one night while I was, you know, angry and trying to figure this out, I thought about Coach Riley.
The other open might have been more exciting from an audio standpoint. (Side note: You can decide for yourself. I used it later, for a follow up story.) But Brenda and the coach was the right open for the story I was telling.

That's why you have to know where your story is going to end before you write the beginning. You want to make sure you're not just writing a great open -- but you're writing the right open for the story you're going to tell.

Once you've written your beginning and figured out where your story is going to end, the rest really just falls into place. All you have to do is connect the dots.

Nancy Updike says she spends more time writing the beginning of her stories than she does on any other section. She says it's an investment that pays dividends later. Write a solid beginning, and the rest of your story will flow much more easily.

On this, Nancy and I completely agree.

Resources I Love
Yeah, I know I linked to these earlier. But if you haven't checked them out yet, now's the time!

Nancy Updike's Transom Manifesto

Nancy Updike's Third Coast talk, "Die, Mediocrity, Die!"
Not subscribed yet?
Sign up now!