Nonrule: Don’t Use ‘Start’ or ‘Begin’

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.”

They don’t realize they’re lying, of course. But this not a rule. It’s advice, and poorly expressed. The more accurate way to express it would be, “If something ‘starts,’ make sure it will continue awhile.” Here’s an excerpt from my current work in progress:

Photo by Robert Linder •
Photo by Robert Linder •

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 could lead to a miscue, with the reader believing the subsequent dialog happened at the foot of the stairs.

Where we run into problems is in “starting” actions that are interrupted. Some writers might put, “He started to leave the room,” when what would be more accurate is to say “He took a step toward the door, but turned back.”

Another place “start” is misused is in describing a lengthy activity that could be broken down into discrete elements. If a character is making tea, you might be tempted to put, “She started making the tea,” when it would be more precise to write, “She spooned tea into the pot.”

There are some gray areas. When the tea kettle starts to whistle, readers know it will keep whistling until someone picks it up. So whether you put “the tea kettle began to whistle” or just “the tea kettle whistled,” is a matter of taste.

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?

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