When To Start Your Story

Until you know your story’s precise timeframe, it’s a horrible idea to start writing.

When does it begin? When does it end? As short an overall story-length as possible! Do not start when the problem starts. Begin only when you have to. You don’t have to start the story now, if you can FADE IN: later.

MICHAEL CLAYTON takes place over four or five days. Tony Gilroy wrote several complete screenplays, entire movies (!), that he cut, before he finally realized when to begin his movie… because he was trying to tell too much story. He tried to cram it ALL in and discovered he had to cut reams, figure out precisely what story he was telling, and lose all the useless chaff.

Decide exactly what your story is and tell that story. Don’t tell any other story, just that one. That’s the only one you need to tell, that one story.

Go find a pencil and a piece of paper. I’ll wait.

Got it? Do you really have it? Because this won’t work if you don’t have a pencil in your hand. Or a pen. Or a crayon.

Draw a horizontal line. All the way across your page. Be generous with your line. Pencils’re cheap. Use it up, you can buy another one anytime. Draw a long line.

It represents your character’s life. Not, hopefully, when they’re born and when they die, but the area of time their Big Problem encompasses — from well before the problem’s birth until way past forgetting she ever had a problem. The line covers everything your story could possibly be about.

Your job is to draw a vertical hash on that line and another one further to the right. Your story begins and your story ends at those two moments. Endeavor to keep those marks as close together as possible, so you’re telling as little of the main character’s life as you can. As long as you’re telling juuuuusst enough!

Find the two inches or half an inch or three inches on that line that’s “a movie”. Don’t tell us anything other than the part that’s a “movie”, that works as a complete story with as little effort on your part as possible. If you can find this sweet spot quickly, you’re the luckiest person in the world. When you start the story, your main character’s already deep in trouble. They have a problem. They’re not happy. Nothing’s working out.

When the inciting incident slams her, her life gets MUCH worse and you’re off to the races! Pick the right place to begin and a host of your problems will vanish. Then, how close to that beginning can you stick your finale? [See my May 7 2020 “Unity of Place” blog post. It touches on the M-80 Theory of Drama, something you must understand.]

Cut that “teaching us who they are and how they got here” crud and your wonderful setup of their tedious, mostly ho-hum lives. Start with her already grappling with a problem. All that explanation you had in those piles of early drafts can go and no one will notice. The instant you figure out the main pulse of your story, you’ll forget you ever wrote all that nonsense you just cut.

Pick the wrong places to start and stop and you could write for decades until you figure out that exact perfect spot to put FADE IN:

The excellent Robert Redford / Sydney Pollack movie, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, was based on a book. Six Days of the Condor.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Screenwriting, Writing Process, Good Writing

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