“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
At a recent booksigning, I was asked by a very nice fellow—who’d apparently spent the last several years researching a 19th century figure and was now ready to start writing—about the “right” way to begin a biography. “Should I begin at the beginning of his life?” he asked, “or pick a pivotal event and start there? Or should I start at the end, and tell the book as a flashback?”
It’s a tricky question, and I’m not certain I have a good answer for it. But I know for sure I don’t have the “right” answer for him — because I don’t think there is a right answer. All I can give you, and him, is my opinion. So, here goes.
Those of us who deal in non-fiction have different narrative issues than those of you who write fiction, mainly because we have the hassle—or the luxury, depending on how you want to look at it—of having the story plotted out for us in advance. No matter how much we might wish Aaron Burr hadn’t turned out to be such a skunk, or want Clarence Darrow to win the Scopes trial, that’s not the way it happened. Nor can the North win the Civil War because of the involvement of space aliens, or Jack the Ripper speed away from the scene of a crime in a Ferrari, no matter how cool that might be. We have to be true to the events we’re reporting.
That’s not to say that we don’t have considerable leeway in how we tell our stories. David McCullough, for example, begins John Adams in January 1776, with the 40-year-old Adams riding on horseback through a snowstorm on his way to Philadelphia, while David Michaelis starts Schulz and Peanuts with Schulz leaving for the army following the death of his mother, long before he ever drew a Peanuts strip. We can tell our stories through flashbacks, or on a straight, chronological track. What we can’t do, however, is tell our stories in ways that seem unnatural or forced. Every story has its beginning—and after doing our research, it’s our job to find it.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, I have a rather tumultuous relationship with my beginnings. I usually know structurally how I’m going to start, but I have a heck of a time with that “once upon a time…” clause that I need to kick the whole thing off. So I have an odd in media res approach to working in which I start writing the middle of the piece first– whether it’s a speech or article or what have you — and go until I have one of those Eureka! moments where everything falls into place, and I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there.
Even then, I still usually save the very first pages for last. By that point, I know exactly where I’ve been in the narrative, I know my structure, and I generally feel that, after having “lived it” for so long, I know the best way to kick things off. And yet, sometimes I still don’t get it quite right on the first try, usually because I’ve somehow ignored my own advice on writing the beginning that works for my story.
In the first draft of Washington Irving, for example, I wrote what I called my Cinematic Opening. It was artsy and theatrical and beautifully written, and I loved it. I even knew exactly the way it would look on film: We open with a tight shot of Irving, already the most famous man in the world, writing letters at the round table in his parlor at Sunnyside. The camera pans slowly up and moves forward—in a prolonged crane shot—through the window of the parlor and out onto the Hudson River, then makes its way downriver to New York City. As the New York of 1847 bustles away, a special effects shot slowly fades the city backwards through time until it reverts to its Revolutionary War-era face of 1783, and we begin to tell the story of Irving’s life.
It was lovely and very Merchant-Ivory and, ultimately, very terrible, because it wasn’t true to the story. It felt too forced, too dramatic, and my editor summed it up nicely with one word: “No.” Out it went.
She was right, and I knew it. I was trying to be clever and cinematic and beautiful, and that wasn’t really my story. It didn’t work. So I started over, and this time I began at the beginning—my beginning, the one I knew was there all along.
That’s the best advice I can give, then: Begin at the beginning of the story—your story—then go on until you come to the end, and then stop. There really is no “right” way, but there is a way that works best for you and the story you want to tell. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Find it, listen to it, then write it.
We open with a tight shot of Irving, already the most famous man in the world, writing letters at the round table in his parlor at Sunnyside. The camera pans slowly up and moves forward—in a prolonged crane shot—through the window of the parlor and out onto the Hudson River…
Sounds like you envisioned an HBO mini-series – and if there’s a biography that deserves the HBO mini-series treatment, it’s this one.
IMO, the same rule applies to all forms of story telling: start at the moment just before things go terribly wrong for the character/subject.
Josephine — Ahhh, I would love an HBO miniseries….it would actually finally force me to pick up HBO. I feel like the only person on the planet who missed John Adams.
You’re spot on in your rule of storytelling, I think. In fact, the first chapters of WI I wrote were those describing the family bankruptcy and Irving’s despondence — the moment, as you note, when everything started to go terribly wrong (and just before everything then started to go terribly right…)
Brian: Then you’re the only person on the planet who doesn’t realize wjat an excellent companion piece your book makes with the mini-series. I felt that WI:AO picks up where that mini-series left off, and will say as much in my review.