The Never-ending Narrative Syndrome One: Start in the Middle

Sometimes the most difficult part of writing a story is knowing where to begin. You may know what your story is going to be about, who the characters are, what the main idea is and how the story needs to end but you’re not sure where to start. Because you’re not sure where to start you may well do one of the following:

  • Describe the main character
  • Describe the setting
  • Describe how the character’s day begins (really bad idea!)
  • Start with a conversation between two of the main characters.

Any of these could get you into big trouble and is likely to lead you into what I call ‘the never-ending narrative syndrome’. The never-ending narrative syndrome strikes at short stories and turns them into long-winded narratives that don’t know how to end.

When you are writing narrative for school (whether it is fiction or non-fiction) it usually needs to be short, that is around 500 to 1000 words, certainly no more than 2000. Even if you are writing for your own enjoyment most young writers aren’t going to tackle a novel until they have a bit of experience under their belt.

Often the cause of the never-ending narrative syndrome isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. The writer doesn’t know where and when to begin their story. Today I’m going to make a suggestion that may sound crazy but if you give it a try next time you are writing a short narrative it may surprise you.

Start in the middle of the story.

That’s right! Forget about introducing the characters, the setting, or the events that led to the major event of the story. Start with the big thing that happens in your story. You can then introduce your readers to your characters by how they respond to this event. You can fill your readers in on background information or previous events by using backstory (where the character thinks back or the narrator kindly fills the reader in on needed information/events) as the story progresses. You may find that you need less backstory than you think. You may be able to convey all you need through describing how your characters deal with this main event.

For example:

Your story is about a shy girl who secretly likes the most popular boy in her school but thinks that he doesn’t know she exists. Her best friend convinces her to write him a note and slip it into his maths book unaware that he has borrowed that book from another boy who she has no interest in whatsoever. Instead of starting your story with your main character dreaming about her love interest or talking to her friend about her love interest who then makes her suggestion, begin the story with:

  • The wrong boy opening the maths book and finding her letter or
  • The wrong boy approaching her in the school cafeteria while she is watching her love interest (in a comedy she might be stalking him) who is flirting with someone else.

Don’t be put off by my romance/drama above (I like romances) the same technique can work for any kind of narrative. Your story could be an action story, a family drama, a dystopian fiction, even a biography. Give it a go and see if it works for you.

In future weeks I will try to suggest some other ideas for dealing with the never-ending narrative syndrome such as; just writing a single scene or structuring your story into one, three or five acts like a play. However remember, if you are writing a long narrative such as a novel these techniques may be less applicable but still useful.

About Carol Jones

Carol Jones is the author of 'The Concubine's Child', set in 1930s Malaya and The Boy With Blue Trousers set in 1850s China and Australia. Born in Brisbane, Australia, she taught English and Drama at secondary schools before working as an editor of children's magazines. She is also the author of several young adult novels as well as children's non-fiction.
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