Basic Principles


In the course of trying to explain starts, a number of general principles were discussed and used. It might be nice to collect them in one place.

Action tends to be more interesting than description

This doesn't mean we only write action, or that a start should be action. There are many factors in play, and this is just one of them.

You can disagree, but it's hard to imagine you would like a book that minimized action. Couldn't you just read nonfiction?

Another principle is more subtle. It might be easier on the reader to start with setting, or maybe not. But there's an assumption underneath that question:

The sentences in a book are instructions for assembling a story.

That might sound horribly obvious, but most authors don't think that way. Most authors think of themselves as presenting information, and as long as the information is there, that's all that matters. (Good authors probably are more aware of this principle.)

I'm assuming that an author can think about the reader assembling the story, then make assembly as easy as possible. And perhaps also make it as interesting as possible; curiously, some writers are content if the scene isn't interesting until the reader replays it.

And as reader, I cannot avoid assembly -- it is what I am constantly doing. When I read setting, I have to decided whether to spend time on it; it could be necessary for the plot. It could enhance mood, but that's a different way of reading it. Or it could be something for other readers that the author might not have even thought about. So I have a problem in reading.


These principles apply throughout the book. I shouldn't even have to talk about them here, they should be known. And whether they're followed in the start would normally be a small matter, except they are a harbinger: If the author doesn't care about them at the start, the author is unlikely to care about them for the rest of the book.

And if you don't care about them, there's no problem. You can decide what you do care about, and then look for that in a start.

More Principles

The second section introduced a boatload of new principles.

Micro-chronology: At the level of sentences, events should not be presented out of order.

There are actually four problems. First, the assumption is that events are presented in order. If this is violated with no marking, confusion occurs.

Second, even if the order is well-marked, that marking is usually more grammatically-complicated than if the events were just in order.

Third, the reader wants to be in the story, which means time should flow normally.

And finally, if you think of sentences as instructions for assembly, the instructions should be presented in order, which is to say, chronologically.

And the problem with the goofy start is that it can force deviations in micro-chronology.

Macro-chronology: At the level of scenes, the future should not be described.

There are several problems. The first is again taking the reader out of the story. The second is that the information can (and probably will) be a spoiler. Third, it can lack meaning when presented out of order.

Fourth, there is a problem of what to do when the scene comes up again in the actual story. Try to tell the same thing over again because this time it will have meaning? Skip it or summarize it? This problem is compounded when the author does not know if the out-of-time information was read by the reader.