What’s the most difficult part of writing a fiction story? The beginning, middle, or end?

The answer to that question will vary widely depending on the writer and his or her particular fiction project. Most of us start writing a story or novel for a particular reason: we had a compelling nightmare, or we overheard a bit of dialog, or we read or saw a story on the news and wondered “What if that had gone differently?” The numbers of things that can inspire a writer are practically endless; ideas are all around us.  But from those germinal ideas, characters or scenes will start forming in our minds, and soon our fingers are on the pen or keyboard and we’re writing.

The problem is, rarely do we have a story come to us fully formed. Bits are usually missing. Important bits.

Do you have an idea for a sympathetic, fun protagonist and an equally fun but rather twisted antagonist, and you know that they start fighting over a stolen relic in an abandoned warehouse, but … you’re not sure what needs to happen after that? Or why? In this situation, your ending might confound you.

Conversely, do you have an idea for a dramatic, epic final battle between the hero and the antagonist … but no idea how they first encountered each other? Or, possibly worse, you know exactly how the two first tangled but they’ve been enemies for decades and they have an immense amount of backstory together … and now you just don’t know where this particular story starts, exactly? Chances are good the beginning of your story will be a bit of a problem.

But maybe you know exactly how their current conflict began. You know how the fight in the warehouse will go and what will happen in that epic final battle … but all the narrative that has to happen in chapters 3 to 9 is a bit hazy to you, and perhaps you’re even a little bored waiting to get to the good stuff? Your novel’s middle might sag like an undercooked pumpkin pie.

So, all three aspects of a narrative can be difficult … but if you pinned me down and told me I had to choose one, I’d pick the beginning of a story as being the most important challenge a writer has to overcome.

Why? First and foremost, if you don’t find a good point of entry for your story, you might never get it written! When I was a newbie writer in my late teens and early twenties, I would start a story based on a single cool idea, and I’d get a paragraph or two in and completely run out of gas. Dozens of dried-up story sprouts littered my hard drive. It was all a learning experience, of course; the most important thing I learned is that I’m a plotter and not a pantser. I don’t outline, but I do need to let a story roll around in my mind for a while and grow a bit before I try to put it on paper. I need to make myself a narrative map; if something more interesting comes along while I’m writing I’ll happily embrace the new destination, but for me to have no destination in mind at all? My narrative engine will stall out in the driveway.

Furthermore, if you start sending around a manuscript with a solid middle and a fabulous ending but a weak opening, the chances are good that the editor or agent won’t keep reading long enough to discover your story’s strengths. In my experience, you have to grab the reader’s attention right away -- not just in the first page but the first paragraph. Ideally, you should hook the reader with your first sentence.

The kind of story you’re writing will dictate what that first page and first paragraph should look like; for every rule put forth in fiction, you can find a writer who managed to break that rule to wonderful effect.

Having said that, if you’re having trouble with your openings, there are a few things you can try:

  • Try to begin at the beginning. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But often, it isn’t, and figuring it out requires thinking hard about your overall story. What’s the event that sets everything else in motion? That’s a really good place to start your tale.
  • If you’re writing a short story, try to start it as close to the climax of your story as you possibly can. This may take some planning. Obviously, you’ll need to have an ending in mind. You can fill in back story later, as needed.
  • Avoid starting a story or novel with lots of static description. Unless you write truly beautiful prose, this is hard to pull off well.
  • Try to start with an action sequence or some kind of conflict like an argument.
  • If your story or novel isn’t action-oriented, start with something unusual or genuinely interesting happening. More than one editor has told me, “If the story starts with an ordinary person doing or talking about something boring, I don’t keep reading.”

And that last point leads to my own advice to myself when I find myself getting stuck in the middle or near the end of a manuscript. I ask myself, “What would be cool or interesting here? What could happen here to mix this up? Given the characters I’ve created and their wants and desires, what interesting, unexpected thing would make the most sense here?” And then I try to make that happen.

If I were to weigh in on this, I would say that the easiest way to proceed is to tell the parts that affect you most, the illumine, as Adam Smith puts it. If I'm writing a complaint to the West Haven Mayor's office, having gone down four feet on my bicycle into a sinkhole, and thereby getting an infection in one leg and two hours late for an appointment, I don't start talking about my appointment. I talk about the road bed giving way under me and sliding into a slurry of sand and sewer water. It's only then that I go back and say something like "I was under court order to meet with these people. It was stormy, but I still chose to go out. I took my bike because it was faster than the bus..." and so on, until I should break off and stop.

The same is true of fiction. To take "To Kill a Mockingbird" as an example, it would have been the easiest part to talk about how my father, Atticus, killed a rabid dog. It would have been very difficult to talk about how it started, which corresponds with how Harper Lee began, which is to tell you the outcome at the start, a device used by many lays and epics: this is the morte of King Arthur, this is how Great Beowulf slew the monster. Yet it's often hard to see when life went from "ordinary" to the intensified version known as "dramatic". For the writers of epics, it was, perhaps, simpler, because it was understood what "ordinary" was. For us, today, we have so many ways that life can be "normal" to people, so we must have a good deal of "establishing" material. So, I would say the most difficult place to start is the beginning.

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