Start Your Story With an Ax

Does this get your attention? Why?

“Where is Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

“Well,” said her mother, “One of the pigs is a runt.” It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors

*

That’s the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, a 184 page novel and one of the best books in the English language.

Guess what? That very, very, very long piece of writing doesn’t start with backstory! There is no set up. We don’t learn anything about Fern’s hopes and dreams or friends or her love for sparkly notebooks or her homework or her painful history with her dopey brother Avery. We find out she lives on a farm, but who cares if it’s near a town in a state in some country somewhere? White starts his story with action, terror, yelling, running, and sympathy for someone smaller. Plus an ax in the first sentence!

We meet Fern when she’s under stress. She has a problem and it’s gigantic. The writer starts with story, not a shred of anything else. If Mr. White doesn’t start his story with a lot of useless backstory and set up and character description and more and more and more set up, then you should consider not doing it either!

Does the writer tell us what Fern looks like? Does she describe Fern’s mother’s hair and where she went to college or her apron?

The number one problem storytellers have is an insatiable desire to tell us stuff we don’t need to know just yet. Get us rolling. Get us very, very, very interested and tell us that world building stuff later.

I teach a class where students stand up and tell stories. Some are only one minute long! Beginning, middle, and end in sixty seconds. Try it sometime. It’s a lot harder than you might suspect. Some students dither and give us useless introduction before the story starts. Sometimes fifteen or twenty seconds of set up and explanation and Godknowswhatall before the story (that they now have to cram into forty seconds) begins.

Don’t do that.

Start your one minute story or screenplay or novel with story. Not necessarily with an ax. But drama and conflict and interesting things happening.

Like, for instance, what some regard as the best first line in all of literature, from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

No ax, but a firing squad. Makes me want to read the second sentence.

If you haven’t read Charlotte’s Web, you’re in for an amazing experience. Like all good stories, including stories that last only one minute, it’s “about” something. Something more than just the plot. Here’s a bit of its New York Times Book Review review by Eudora Welty.

“What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”

That’s enough “abouts” to fill a 184 page story. If you have a one page or a five page or fifteen page story, you better slim your “abouts” down to one and only one. Not two. One.

Then, start with that thing. Not backstory or set up.

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