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Editing Principle 42: The Very Beginning is Not a Very Good Place to Start

centrestreetAwhile ago I came across writing advice from Philip Pullman that amounted to: “The beginning of a story doesn’t have to be told first.” No duh, I thought. Of course the first pieces of information an audience receives from a storyteller will not necessarily correspond to what happened first chronologically.

But Pullman’s insight is more insightful than it initially seemed to me. Often when a reader stops reading a book / article / blog post very early on, one can fault short attention spans all day long but fact is, by definition, it means the writer botched the opening. They started too far back, or not far back enough. They misjudged the best spot from which to begin.

And why is that? When it comes to personal narratives, I’d say it’s because most of us are poor judges of what’s most interesting about ourselves and our experience, and we also like to dazzle people, so we tend to start stories with us already doing pretty well (at whatever it is we’re doing in the story). Or — and this is arguably worse — we start with us as total innocents, as literal kids. But we would be better off starting personal narratives with moments of us, as adults:

1) having only the faintest idea of what we’re supposed to be doing, or
2) thinking we’re in control of a situation but actually quite dramatically mistaken about that.

For expository writing, the reasons we start in the wrong place — and time — are a bit different. I’ll explore that in another post.

*For those of you who didn’t get the reference in the title, please watch The Sound of Music right now!