San Francisco, California

Start with the drama

I reckon every good story begins halfway through. One example is the first scene of Uncharted 2: we don’t see our protagonist Nathan Drake at the train station buying his ticket, grabbing a coffee, hopping on the train, finding his seat, taking off his coat, and then finally settling down for the trip. Instead, the game cuts to Drake waking up in his seat upside down with the train teetering on the edge of a cliff in the Himalayas; suitcases are crashing down all around him and into the open maw of a giant canyon.

This reminds me that there’s only one writing tip worth paying attention to: always start with the drama.

Sure, you can begin your story at the train station if you like, but if we start with the drama and then trust the reader to figure out what happened it ends up being so much more satisfying.

This writing tip applies to video games as much as it does to books, blog posts, and film: A New Hope begins with two ships in chase. Within half a minute we understand what’s going on without the need for a single word to be spoken or an introductory preamble as to which ship is which. I could go on endlessly with examples. In fiction? “Call me Ishmael.” But wait—who is this? Where am I? What is going on? I have no earthly idea, but tell me more!

Beginning in the middle of a story is a cheap but effective trick and it took me about a decade to figure out. You can tell in my early writing that I want to make sure the reader is tagging along for the ride with giant rambling introductions, but it always feels patronizing. I would try to set things up from every angle yet this produces writing that just isn’t exciting to read. You’re left with a story that’s stuck in the dirt with the tires spinning.

Today I always jump halfway into whatever point I’m trying to make for two reasons. First, this jolts the reader awake. “Pay attention!” the introductory sentence should declare. Second, I jump into the middle so that I can then enjoy the fun of trying to explain my way out of it. And one small example of this done well is the introduction to an essay that I wrote years ago all about typography and graphic design:

“First you notice the letter.”

What does that mean? Who is you? What is this whole thing about and what the heck has this got to do with anything? Where am I? Eh?

This essay could’ve started like any other blog post or book or television show about design: “Typography is all around us. It’s the art of visualizing the way that...” blah blah blah! Screw everything about all of that. Instead: throw me in the deep end because otherwise why should I care?

All of this is to say that we need to stop patronizing our readers by explaining everything away. If we start halfway through the story where the drama is thickest we can leave a bit of mystery behind, and the readers can be trusted to fill in the gaps for themselves.