Stronger Writing: Starts, Beginnings, and Promises Made

Image of a portion of a reddish brown running track with painted lane divisions crossed by a perpendicular line with All writers are familiar with the aphorism “Finish What You Start”. It’s good advice. You can’t sell a story that’s not finished. Writers finish things.

But this post isn’t about that kind of starting and finishing.

This post is about starts and beginnings in action and dialogue: what they are, what they do, and how to use them to serve the story.

Let’s start with these pairs of sentences:

  • Louise smiled and began to walk away from me.
  • Louise smiled and walked away from me.
  • Ben grimaced and started unloading the dishwasher.
  • Ben grimaced and unloaded the dishwasher.
  • The queen began to rise from her throne.
  • The queen rose from her throne.

Do you see the difference? In each pair, the first sentence emphasizes the start of an action, whereas the second emphasizes the action itself.

Why does this matter?

Well, there are a few reasons.

First, in prose (specifically in fiction), a beginning implies an ending. More specifically, an emphasized beginning is a signal to the reader that an abrupt, often unexpected, ending or reversal is coming. It makes the beginning more important than the action that begins, because the action then ends, for good and important story reasons.

Let’s look at those sentences again:

  • Louise smiled and began to walk away from me. (Implication: she stops walking away)
  • Louise smiled and walked away from me. (Implication: she went, and I let her)

If Louise stops, turns around and comes back to give the narrator an awkward hug or a passionate kiss or a punch in the snoot, or if he runs after her, that fulfills the promise made by “she began to walk away”. If she just walks away, then there’s no need to shine a light on the “began to”, and the second sentence serves the story purpose better.

  • Ben grimaced and started unloading the dishwasher. (Implication: he stops unloading)
  • Ben grimaced and unloaded the dishwasher. (Implication: Ben hates unloading the dishwasher)

If Ben abruptly stops unloading the dishwasher, perhaps to answer the doorbell, to Frisbee the plates into the fireplace, or to crumple to the floor with severe chest pain, the promise made by “he started” is fulfilled. If he just unloads until the dishwasher is empty and all the contents are put away, the second sentence serves the story better.

  • The queen began to rise from her throne. (Implication: upward progress ceases)
  • The queen rose from her throne. (Implication: she stood up)

If the queen sits back down, or is frozen in a bent-over posture by back pain, the promise of “began to” is fulfilled. If she just stands up, smoothly and easily? Well, you get the idea.

This guideline also applies to dialogue. Have you ever read something like this?

“Honestly, Bunty,” Imogen began, “I don’t know what you ever saw in Edgar; he’s perfectly horrid. The cut of that waistcoat, and the plaid.” She coughed delicately.

A character who begins to speak must be interrupted or otherwise forced to stop speaking. In the above example, Bunty sits by silently (possibly because she can’t get a word in edgewise), so “said” is a better choice for Imogen’s dialogue tag.

Let’s give Bunty a chance to speak.

“Honestly, Bunty,” Imogen said.

Bunty looked up from her stitching.

“What’s that, Im?”

“I don’t know what you ever saw in Edgar,” she began, but Bunty cut her off.

“Don’t, Imogen. Don’t, I beg you. I know very well you never liked Edgar, or his plaid waistcoats, but it’s unbecoming of you to gloat.”

This exchange could be tighter and tidier; if I were editing it, I’d use an em-dash rather than a dialogue tag, like so:

“Honestly, Bunty,” Imogen said.

Bunty looked up from her stitching.

“What’s that, Im?”

“I don’t know what you ever saw in Ed–“ she began, but Bunty cut her off.

“Don’t, Imogen. Don’t, I beg you. I know very well you never liked Edgar, or his plaid waistcoats, but it’s unbecoming of you to gloat.”

Conversational interruptions happen quickly. Dialogue tags and reactions slow the flow and can hamper the pace, emotion, and punch of snappy exchanges.

Secondly, unfulfilled starts and beginnings are wordy. (I was going to say unnecessarily wordy, but that’s unnecessarily wordy.) Wordiness slows down pace, and moves the immediacy of the narrative back half a step. Rather than having something start to happen, have it actually happen.

  • Louise smiled and began to walk walked away from me.
  • Ben began to unload unloaded the dishwasher
  • The horizon began to glow glowed with the first moments of dawn.
  • She started singing sang to herself.
  • I gathered my dirty clothes and started stuffing stuffed them into the laundry hamper.

Cutting even one word from a sentence tightens it up. Tight prose is like roller skating on fresh blacktop: smooth, fast, and exhilarating. Wordy prose is like running above the tide line at the beach: more time and effort are required to cover the same story distance.

Thirdly, beginnings that don’t end can create distrust in your reader. Every story is a series or stack of promises, large and small. An unfinished beginning is a promise not kept. Readers may forgive one, or perhaps two, tiny unkept promises, but nobody sits still to have their expectations disappointed again and again. Authors who don’t keep their promises don’t keep their readers, either.

Fourthly, even when a beginning is finished, it can come across as telling rather than showing. “Started” and “began” are relatively weak verbs, and can almost always be strengthened to show rather than tell.

  • Telling: Louise smiled and started to walk away from me, then turned around. “See you tomorrow?”
  • Showing: Louise smiled and walked sinuously toward the door. She put a hand on the knob and half-turned back to me. “See you tomorrow?”
  • Telling: Ben grimaced and started unloading the dishwasher. The pain got worse and he fell.
  • Showing: Ben grimaced and gripped his left arm he pulled the top rack of the dishwasher out. He dug his fingers in to his biceps, looking for a muscle in spasm. The pain doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and crushed him to the floor.
  • Telling: The queen began to rise from her throne, then remembered the protocol lesson she’d had that morning.
  • Showing: The queen shifted her weight slightly forward on the throne as if to rise as the Jovian deputation entered. The Chancellor cleared his throat quietly, a reminder of that morning’s discussion: the highest-ranking person in the room–herself, as of two days ago–could choose, but was not required, to stand to greet foreign dignitaries.

Can’t I ever use “began” or “started” in my writing?

Of course you can! If it’s the best and strongest verb in a particular situation, use it with aplomb.

  • “Let’s get this party started!” Annabelle shouted, leaping onto the nearest table.
  • I thought I’d make it through the funeral without shedding a tear. And then the choir started singing “Jerusalem”.
  • The lights went down, the curtain came up, conversation ceased, and the performance began.

Have a look at your story. Do a search on the words “began” and “started” (and perhaps “set about”). How many beginnings do you find? How many make unfulfilled promises? How can you strengthen those occurrences?

Did you find uses of “began” or “started” where it’s the best possible verb? Tell me about that, too!

2 thoughts on “Stronger Writing: Starts, Beginnings, and Promises Made

  1. Great post, WB! I really like the metaphor of promises made and kept.

    Also, I’ve learned that unloading the dishwasher can be hazardous to your health ;-D

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