Mary Hooper: Why start at the beginning?

Short stories are a great way to develop and hone your writing techniques, and I wrote loads of short stories for magazines before I got up the nerve to write a whole book.

For me, one of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding the way in. There’s your story in your head, all warming-up and getting ready to be told, but you can’t think of the right way to get to it, to capture it and begin getting it down on paper. What seems like the right way of starting a story: at the beginning of an auspicious day, perhaps - means that you have to have your main character getting up, showering, having breakfast and doing all that boring stuff before you come to the real action. A technique I often use is to begin a story almost at the end, when it’s clear the main character is in a terrible situation, and then flash back to show what’s happened to get them into this mess. This way you keep the reader guessing and maintain the tension at the same time.

 

With NEWES FROM THE DEAD it came to me immediately that I would begin the book with my main character, Anne Green, lying comatose in her coffin. This way she could reflect on her life, go over her story and try to work out what had happened to her, and my reader could find out at the same time. What could be more gruesome than to wake in your coffin?! Truly the stuff of nightmares.

So why not begin your own story at a crucial point: your main character on the point of being arrested for a crime they didn’t commit, for instance, or about to emigrate when they don’t really want to, or saying goodbye to someone they love, or hanging off a cliff by one hand - and then flash back to show how they came to this point in the story. Keep your reader guessing - will they/won’t they? - until you reach the end of the narrative and come back to the start. Then all you’ve got to do is decide what to do with your character!
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