May 18, 2012

You have to start somewhere

Fiction writers often tell this lie to one another: "Don't use words like started or began." I've even heard it referred to as "the start rule."

Photo by Robert Linder •
They don't realize they're lying, of course. But this not a rule. It's advice. The more accurate way to express it is to say, "If the character is going to 'start' doing something, make sure it's an activity that will continue awhile."

Not recommended:

Blayse started to take a bill from her wallet. "Can you change a twenty?"


Blayse pinched the bill in her wallet. "Can you change a twenty?"

The removal of a bill takes a second, so here "start" is inaccurate. She either takes it out or she doesn't. But some actions take longer. For example, here's an excerpt from my current work in progress:

Blayse started down the stairs. “Will you come to church with me?”

Slider followed. “Umm…no. Thanks."

“You went with Reuben and Marisol.”

“Marisol made me. You don’t think she wanted to leave me in her house alone, do you?”

“I think more likely she wanted to get you into the church.” She turned down the second-floor hallway and looked over her shoulder at him. “You liked the music.” What was she saying? She didn’t encourage people to attend worship for the music.

"Started" works there, letting the reader know the stair descending continues through the subsequent lines of dialog. If I blindly followed "the start rule," I'd have put "Blayse walked down the stairs," which would sound as if all of her subsequent dialog happened at the foot of the stairs.

Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to edit me. I have thick skin.

What "rules" have you heard that seemed too absolute or far-reaching?


  1. Thanks for this! I have been told not to use this and I've shared it with others.

  2. You're welcome, Jennette. I'm kind of on a mission now to put these so-called "rules" in perspective. So please let me know if you hear any others like this.

  3. This makes sense, but then most of what you write makes sense. ;)

    Not sure I've heard of "the start rule" per se, but a little bitty siren goes off in my head when I see the word.

    Is this the story about the accountant?

  4. Yes! Thank you for remembering, Robynn. Blayse is the accountant. Slider is an artist. They make a good team because each has skills the other lacks.