2. Start Late
When should a story start? On film budgets, writing economically, and finding the correct "beginning" with Fresh (2022) and Drive My Car (2021)
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Now, onto the post.
Last time, we talked about how the opening of your story can lay down a path that leads you all the way to the end. In that week’s exercise, I also invited you to think about your recent favorite reading or piece of media, and how much time the storytellers of those pieces take before it compels you to go on. I think this is a good point to jump off from when discussing this week’s topic, which has to do with timing and when a story should start.
According to Landau and Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned…, the lesson to be learned this week has to do with “[starting] your story as late as possible,” so that it “[occurs] over the shortest reasonable span of time.” Now this doesn’t necessarily mean compressing your narrative so much that it starts at the very end, which leads to the trite, often droll “Three weeks earlier…” title card. What it does refer to, however, is the need to look at the time you spend telling your story economically. How much of your story are you lending to establishing the world of your characters? How much time are you compressing versus playing out in real-time versus playing out in extended time?
In my workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference last year, Jess Walter discussed the idea of writing with a “producer’s film budget,” a metaphor that would fortuitously lend itself to the premise of this newsletter. Following this metaphor, writers each get a blank check to produce the story they want to tell. With a blank check, nothing is off limits. You can open your story with a massive explosion, with wild stunts, and with CGI that realizes your dreams, visions, and nightmares in ways that practical efforts might never do. But for every dollar you spend to tell your story, you also increase the burden to make that money back with your story. Essentially, you could spend money to start off your story with a spectacular explosion, but can you guarantee your reader’s attention and, crucially, repeat readings with that special effect? Plenty of writers have been able to achieve that with smaller and smaller budgets (though, of course, that shouldn’t stop you from blowing that first page up if you can make it work. I’ll go back to this idea in a while.)
Personally, I feel this metaphor also extends to the idea of how much time we play out in our stories and when and where our story should start. One of the key tools in every fictionist’s toolbox, as I’ve already alluded to more than once, is time. You can skip days and even whole years in a narrative, just as you can deploy various methods to extend a single moment so that it lasts an entire book. Time mediates narrative experience, and when we control the movement of time in our stories, we subtly influence the timing of our reader’s emotional reaction.
If you write out a scene—let’s say it’s about two supporting characters meeting up to dish out hot goss about a third character—and you write that scene in real time (no skips, no pausing to reflect on a piece of information; ideally minimizing everything to attributed quotes and relevant physical-world actions), you’re creating a scene at the baseline budget, say $50. The minimum desired result is breaking even, or getting your reader to feel that the experience of reading your story was not a waste of their time. But because this scene contains the entirety of the event, you also have moments that decrease your chances of success, such as the characters saying hi, one of the characters compliments the other on their dress, the recipient of the compliment talks about where they got it, the two characters order lunch, and only then do they start talking about their mutual friend, who got so drunk that she drove her dad’s car through her ex’s exploding apartment the night before.
You probably see where I’m going with this. Why not just start with the goss? You spend less time and money on the scene, and you get your reader right off the bat. Check cleared.
We can extend this principle to the question of when our stories start with an interesting caveat. Suppose you’ve got a mix of scenes that can all serve as possible starting points—a woman reveals to her husband that she’s been having an affair for years, the man subsequently dies, the children arrive and reunite for the first time in years, their mother’s lover shows up at the funeral, and then the mother recalls how she and her lover first met. If we religiously follow the “Start late” rule, then we would naturally land on the mother’s explanation, which, by virtue of a naturally-occurring flashback, is just a frame for the chronological earliest scene in the story. But if we try to think about these scenes economically, then the answer becomes more subjective.
Some will say that there is an ideal form for each story in its parts—you might have heard writers, critics, or teachers describe a work as having “the correct beginning,” “the correct climax,” or “the correct ending.” By this, they usually mean that no other choice would have worked for the story; it couldn’t have started or ended any other way. I understand this evaluation when narrative moments are clear to the writer. I’d agree and think that those writers have found the correct moment for their story, but maybe this is only really true insofar as the writer is able to skillfully execute them. I think what I’m trying to suggest is the possibility that all of the scenes I’ve proposed above can effectively and efficiently start a good, compelling story. In fact, figuring out which one is the perfect scene to start with might not be as important as figuring out which scene resonates most with you as the writer. Someone could look at the revelation scene and see an opportunity to write a powerful monologue that admits to the affair. Someone else could see the lover’s arrival as the perfect opportunity to sow intrigue and a sense of mystery in the story. A third writer could take the father’s death as an opportunity to focus on the emotional reaction of the siblings, underlining the ensemble of characters who will feature heavily throughout the narrative.
All of these openings are valid as long as they play to the writer’s strengths. As I said before, if you can make the explosion work, go for it. To go back to the budget metaphor, all that really matters is whatever your artistic vision can squeeze out of the resources you’re given.
Just to offer a counterpoint to the “Start late” rule, let’s look at several movies that refute the idea that the story should start as late or as close to the action as possible. In movies, the title card usually functions as a signal that the story is really about to begin. We’re all familiar with movies that open with the title and opening credits, or with a cold prologue followed by the opening credits, usually five minutes into the film at the latest—but how about movies that give you their opening titles deep into its runtime?
A number of titles using this technique have cropped over the years, including the Friday the 13th remake (2009), which gives us its title card 23 minutes into the movie, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), clocking in at 18 minutes before the title drops.
More recently, we have seen Mimi Cave’s Fresh (2022), which gives the title at 33 minutes, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), which delivers its opening credits at an astounding 41 minutes. The title card for Fresh marks a significant turning point in the film. For the first forty minutes, the viewer is led to believe that they are watching a blossoming romance between Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Steve (Sebastian Stan). Steve invites Noa to his summer home for a getaway, and Noa accepts. However, shortly after Noa and Steve arrive, she falls unconscious while they are having drinks and it’s only then that the true nature of the story really reveals itself. It’s a narrative move that heightens our sense of terror and distrust, which are appropriate to both the film’s thematic focus and genre.
Similarly, the opening credits for Drive My Car marks the end of an extended prologue that many directors would instinctively think to punt to flashbacks or character retellings. But giving the viewer the time and space to understand where Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is coming from when the film really begins forty minutes in. We understand immediately why he is so antsy around Kōji (Masaki Okada), and what it means to him when he meets Misaki (Tōko Miura), his new driver. Without that prologue, the viewer misses out on the context that creates meaning in the moment. Cave and Hamaguchi effectively show that a story can start early rather than late, but it matters that they are able to justify these decisions as the films unfold.
So when should a story start? Well, listen to your gut. What does it tell you?
Let’s put that invitation into practice with another pair of exercises.
What was the last book, story, movie, or episode of a television show you really, really, really enjoyed? Go back to that piece and try to look for the exact point where you started to feel excited or compelled by it on your first viewing. Once you’ve identified that point, write down as many plot beats as you can from the start of the piece up to the point you’ve identified. Are you interested from the very opening moment of the story? Does the story need to introduce certain characters before getting you hooked? Afterwards, ask yourself these questions:
Does the story benefit from having this many plot beats? Could it be more concise? Could the story begin with the part that excites me?
Conversely, are there things that could happen to make me more interested in the earlier beats of the story? What would it take for me to be compelled at an earlier point in the story?
What do I find interesting in a story?
Let’s go back to the sequence of possible openings we saw in one of our examples earlier. Here they are again for easy reference:
a woman reveals to her husband that she’s been having an affair for years,
the man subsequently dies,
the children arrive and reunite for the first time in years,
their mother’s lover shows up at the funeral,
the mother recalls how she and her lover first met.
Pick one of these starting points and write it as the first chapter of a novel. Again, go with your gut and write the opening that you think you can do best. If you can inject it with an approach that feels uniquely suited to how you write, go for it.
With regard to the second exercise, I think there’s an interesting tangential thought experiment to play around with while you’re writing. Pay attention to whether or not you ever feel the inclination to reference any of the other plot points while writing (e.g. if you choose to write about the lover showing up at the funeral, at what point do you choose to say whose funeral it is? Do you jump straight into the flashback as soon as the lover appears?) What does this tell you about the costs of starting early or starting late? Moreover, what does it tell you about your personal approach and attitude to exposition?
Thanks for joining me on this week’s post. In our next post two weeks from now, we’ll discuss the most infamous piece of writing advice known to fledgling storytellers everywhere: show, don’t tell. When does it work? When, if ever, is it better to tell? Let’s find out next time.
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