Written by Bryan Caron
Once upon a time…
Wait. I can’t start my tale with that. It’s become such a cliché among the tales of the fairy it’s almost retching. Come to think of it, it’s almost as bad as starting a story with “It was a dark and stormy night”, which in and of itself is a longer and more mysterious way of saying “Once upon a time”, and that doesn’t fly with me. In my experience, if a story begins with “once” or “it”, listeners across the universe will moan in agony and turn you into molten debris. And don’t even try to do a fancy-pantsy dance around this problem by dropping the “upon a time” and going with just “Once”, or change “It was” to “On” or “Before” or even “After.” These are lazy ways of trying to sound different while still saying the exact same thing. So, please, bear with me if you will as I try a bit harder to find a more original beginning to my very special story. I would hate to fall into the trap of regurgitating the same old tale, inevitably leading to that gawd-awful ending — and they lived happily ever after. Why don’t you find me a hole I can crawl —
Wait, that’s another cliché, isn’t it? Okay, well then… move out of the way, my stomach’s about to backfire. Ending any tale with “happily ever after” is sloppy, boring, and downright vomitous. But why am I worried about the end when I haven’t even come up with a suitable beginning? Oh, right. That’s why. It’s because some stories occasionally use a slice of information from the climax to thrust a reader into the tale, basically saying, “Hey, keep reading to find out why this happened and who did it. You won’t be sorry.” So, maybe I’ll try that.
* * *
Blood oozed gently from the wound as Jordana pulled the cold steel of her sword from Lilafinni’s chest…
Whoa-ho! Wait a minute. I have to stop right there. I can’t start the story with that. It gives away the shocking twist. What’s the point of continuing the story if you find out that the second part of my protagonist’s love triangle is stabbed to death in the first line? No one in their right mind would continue a story after learning something like that, not unless the rest of the story was about the repercussions of that moment, which it isn’t — not at all. That’s like starting the story with,
* * *
They were married two moons later, and although Jordana’s death would always be on his mind, he knew he would forever find solace in his one true love…
You see what I’m saying? If you know that my protagonist killed the antagonist and married the flower princess in the first line of the story, there would be no dramatic tension whatsoever and you’d be bored off your tree stump. I’m going to have to think harder about this. What else can I try? Well, I’ve seen descriptive scenes of landscapes begin a story before. Maybe I’ll go with that.
* * *
The leaves whispered in the crisp air of the forest…
Nope, no. No way. This would make the beginning of the story long and mind-meltingly boring. No one wants to dig through mounds of tedious description about landscapes to get to the heart of the story. I can throw this stuff in later, you know, dispense it subtly across other, more tantalizing details. The beginning needs to catch the listener’s attention and be relevant, without giving away all of the secrets that will eventually reveal themselves toward the end of the story.
Let’s see… uh… well, I have seen stories begin with dialogue; in fact, I’ve done it myself on occasion. But that can be tricky; it has to be something that will tie in with my protagonist’s back-story, but not be so blatant that you learn my protagonist is the son of a king who was banished from the throne by his cousin. I want the listener to learn those facts throughout the course of the story. But then, the dialogue can’t be so arbitrary that it makes absolutely no sense in the scheme of things. It has to be somewhere in the middle — something that’s vague, but powerful, that gives a sense of style and voice, but keeps the listener interested.
How about this:
* * *
“I want your blood, and I will have it. The crown will be mine forever.”
Yes. Now that… wait, wait, wait wait wait. I can’t start the story here. This would put the beginning near the end again, and then I would have to rely too much on had-hads — and you know how much I absolutely hate using a had-had. Don’t get me wrong, they’re okay from time to time when explaining something majorly important, but when the entire tale becomes a back-story, had-hads become a real nuisance. To avoid them, I’d have to resort to using flashbacks, but too much of those are just as bad. Whenever I’ve tried using flashbacks in past tales, the entire essence of the story i destroyed. This one time, I was creating this tale about a man who had flowers growing out of his ears, and he eventually met another man who had had the same experience. (Wait… did I just use a had-had to describe a flashback I used in a story? Huh, go figure. Anyway…) I needed a flashback to explain how this man coped with this phenomenon and was able to finally dispense of the flowers in his ears. But by the time I finished the flashback, I found the entire scenario absolutely ludicrous. Two people inflicted with a disease where flowers grow out of their ears? That would be far too unbelievable for even the simplest of listeners. I mean, there’s suspension of belief and then there’s suspension of belief. The excitement and fervor I had for the idea disappeared, so I scrapped it entirely. Coincidentally, the flower guy ends up with a pretty healthy role in this new tale.
You see, long ago the man was cursed by a warlock and over time has slowly transformed into a flower. His feet are planted in the ground and almost every inch of his body has sprouted, but he’s still capable of thought and speech. In fact, without the flower guy, my protagonist would never have met the flower princess, who was born from a flower bud due to the residue of the magic used to curse the flower guy in the first place. It’s because of this that she’s deemed the most perfect creature to ever live, which provides the basis for why my protagonist falls deeply in love with her. Hey, maybe that’s where I should begin my tale. Let’s try it.
* * *
The flowers spoke beauty and out she stepped, sparkling in the rays of the sun…
No. Not that. How about,
* * *
The flowers rose from the ground, to reveal the essence of a man…
No! I can’t do that. I can’t start the story with the flower guy. There’s too much to explain in his appearance to do that. I have to get this idea of starting at the end of the story, or even in the middle, out of my head. All of that’s just a bad, overused gimmick anyway, a ploy to manipulate the listener into thinking it’s something they might enjoy. I don’t want to deal in gimmicks. Not with this. So, really, I have only one choice and that’s to start the story where any real story begins — at the beginning. But that’s the problem I had to begin with, isn’t it? Uhnngg! This is so difficult. So many choices to choose from, I don’t…
Okay, wait. I think I got it. How about I start with the birth of my protagonist. That seems like a logical point, doesn’t it? Yeah… yeah, I’ll start there.
* * *
The screams of labor echoed through the mist…
But wait. If I start here, I would have two characters that have very rich pasts that I would need to explore — namely, my protagonist’s parents. I would need to go into detail about how they met in the forest after his father was dethroned and ordered to the slaughter. I would then need to go into how a mysterious woman came out of the shadows to rescue him from death, fell instantly in love with him and lived an extremely comfortable life in the far reaches of the forest until my protagonist was born. And, no, I can’t gloss over any of this information; it’s far too important. It explains why he’s in the forest in the first place; I can’t leave that part out.
Let me think.
* * *
He raised the sword to the tips of the sky when suddenly an arrow struck his chest. He fell…
Not quite… if I start here I would have to explain the details of how and why the father was dethroned, leading to about a thousand had-hads. I would need to explain that a girl was born to the father’s cousin and that this girl met and wed a man who thought her to be truly honorable. I’d also have to explain how this girl (my antagonist — keep up, will you) betrayed and murdered her husband, and then blamed it on my protagonist’s father. So, to be fair, I think I need to start the story upon the first encounter of the cousin’s daughter and her eventual husband.
* * *
Her heart drifted like that of the clouds above; she could see in his eyes a trust and a love and a faith that made her head soft and her legs melt…
Oh my sweet Mage. Do you see — do you see what’s happening to me? I’ve had to resort to using the eyes to get the story going. That right there is an absolute killer, no matter who the storyteller is. Not only have eyes been done to death (and become a cliché among themselves), but they are the hardest thing to talk about without sounding insanely cheesy. Cue the eye rolling! None of this really matters, though, since this particular meeting invokes even more details that need to be addressed. I would have to explain how this girl was born and what the feelings were on that, and then deal with the relationship between the cousin’s father and his brother (my protagonists great-grandfather, if you’re keeping score) and how the great-grandfather became king in the first place. I would have to clarify that the last member of the first royal family died, leaving a hole in the structure of the kingdom, and that the entire population voted to anoint the great-grandfather king.
* * *
“Grasdel. Grasdel shall be our next king. He is honorable, trustworthy, and has worked by the king’s side for decades…”
Oh, I can’t start the story here. This introduces a myriad of other problems: What did Grasdel do for the king? How did he get to that position in the first place? Why was he perceived to be so honorable? These questions would have to be answered, but if I keep going like this, the story will end up being three thousand pages long. At that rate, I wouldn’t even reach the heart of the story until, like, page two thousand, seven hundred and fifty. No, if I’m going to convey the story I actually want to tell, I need to fast-forward past the birth of my protagonist to the point where he finds out that he is actually the true king.
* * *
He was only twelve when he…
No! This brings us back to those pathetic, clichéd beginnings of “Once upon a time” and “It was a dark and stormy night”. I won’t do it!
* * *
“The secret, my young lad, is that Jordana is not the true heir to this land. The one with the true royal blood is you, my son…”
No, no, no, nononononono. No! That quote is worse than my first quote. It reveals way too much. I need to think of something much better than that. How about,
* * *
The flower princess dropped to her knees in pain, crying over the only person she ever loved…
No. Just… no.
* * *
Jordana was not one to be reckoned with, and the flower princess had reckoned…
My sweet Mage. Really? That is bad on so many levels.
* * *
He knew he was special, but what he was about to hear would change his life forever…
Yeah, right — if I want to kill myself.
* * *
“You must avenge my death, my son, and take back what is rightfully yours…”
Pathetic! Come on, what am I doing? Think.
* * *
She slid through the air, tears streaming down her cheeks to fight the one who murdered her father…
Are you serious? This isn’t even about my fath… err… my protagonist.
* * *
He raced after the lovely being that would one day be his wife…
Break out the potions of death — I just wrote the worst line ever.
* * *
Mage, this is so frustrating. I’m just a young fairy trying to relay a sweet little tale about her ancestors and I can’t even find a reasonable, original, exciting beginning. They were wonderful, gracious sprites and I need to honor them with a magnificent tale, but if I can’t find a worthy beginning, it’ll feel like I’m disrespecting their history with a bunch of hollow words, and I really don’t want to dishonor them with a story that feels completely disingenuous.
You know what? How about I leave the entire thing up to you. I’ll give you the option. What do you think I should use as my beginning? I don’t care what it is, or where it is in the story, just let me have it.
Give me a beginning!
* * *
Once upon a time…
©2013 Bryan Caron
You may also read the Spanish version, Una historia sin inicio, by clicking here.