A trip to the cinema to see Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ made me think about how difficult I would have found it as a writer to know where to start writing the script for it. Actually, one of the very many good things about this movie was that it made me think about quite a lot of other things too, but that’s beside the point.
It must have been easy enough to work out where to end the story, but I can imagine the screenwriter being tempted to start further back in Lincoln’s life, whether just as far as the Emancipation proclamation or to his election as President, or to his journey into national politics from quite humble beginnings, and to try and explain too much of the back story. Instead, as anyone who has seen the film will know, the plot focusses on the events that take place within quite a short space of time and specifically on the struggle to get the 13th amendment to the US Constitution through the House of Representatives.
As a writer I have found myself frequently starting in the wrong place. On occasion I’ve had to go back after the first draft and write about things that took place before the start, either because I’ve started with the ‘wrong’ group of characters and need to throw more light on the one(s) who are going to play a central part in the rest of the novel, or because I haven’t explained enough about the basis for the main events. This happened to me with ‘Reunited in Death’, my second Pitkirtly mystery novel. I think I tend to err more on this side because I have a horror of over-explaining things. I believe in letting readers work some of it out for themselves.
It is always easier if you can start the novel with an action sequence, and even better if it turns out to have a connection with the central storyline! But this isn’t always possible. I sometimes wonder if I really need the scene at the start of ‘Crime in the Community’ where one of the characters seems to be in the middle of some sort of international conflict. But that was more fun than starting with the second scene at a meeting in the local pub in a small town in Scotland.
With most of my more recent novels I have usually mulled over the first chapter in my mind for some time before I start writing, and sometimes I even have the first few sentences in my head for a while. This has the advantage that I can start writing without really even thinking, but the downside is that these sentences may appear to be set in stone because they’ve become fixed in my mind! This is a definite disadvantage during the editing phase.