There’s a Writing Craft article over at A Writer’s Gallery by Rayne Hall: Tone your writing style: Cut “begin” and “start”.
“Begin to” and “start to” are almost always unnecessary. If something happens, you don’t need to tell the reader that it starts to happen. Just let it happen. …
About four “begin” or “start” per novel are fine – but forty are a sign of fat-wobbling writing, and four hundred are definitely too much.
Out of curiosity, I counted instances of ‘begin’, ‘began’ and ‘start’ in my novel Suzie and the Monsters. There were very few instances of ‘begin’ and ‘began’, but there were one hundred instances of ‘start’.
So, okay, there were quite a few ‘startles’ and even a ‘starter’, but searching specifically for ‘start’ in conjunction with a verb still yielded well over seventy instances. In an 82,000 word novel. Am I really guilty of fat-wobbling writing?
I do actually agree with Rayne Hall’s criticism of fat-wobbling writing, so this post isn’t intended as an argument so much as an analysis of my use of ‘start’. (There are a handful of instances where ‘start’ could be removed, and indeed where it should be removed, but I’m more curious here about the other instances.)
Interrupted actions: There are a few cases of an action starting but being interrupted, for example:
He starts to write this down, then stops.
I start to explain, but Alia’s shouting again.
Cleo starts to protest but I quiet her.
But it really is a start! There are cases where only the start of the action is witnessed:
As I leave, Ben slides into my seat, sandwiching Cleo, and starts to unbutton her jacket.
Extended actions: There are cases of an action being explicitly started, with the understanding that the actions are ongoing and will complete later:
I can’t stay in this flat. Cradling my coffee, I sit at the computer and start backing up everything important to an encrypted disc image on the external hard drive. I also start copying my CD collection onto the external drive.
Such actions don’t have to be extended over a long period of time. The above example introduces actions that last for a few hours, whereas the next examples last for a few seconds:
Just after seven in the morning her phone starts chirping.
I give it a gentle tug, and he starts swearing at me again, and strains to lift his pelvis.
Compare these with:
Just after seven in the morning her phone chirps.
I give it a gentle tug, and he swears at me again, and strains to lift his pelvis.
Chirps? Just the once? And does he swear more than once?
But it sounds odd! There are some cases where (in my opinion) it would sound slightly odd to cut out the ‘start’:
Jenny nods, and starts to cry again, but she gets to work.
… her parents grew worried enough to start burning the phone lines…
‘No,’ she says, although I’m not entirely convinced, and starts walking again.
Compare the above with:
Jenny nods, and cries again, but she gets to work.
… her parents grew worried enough to burn the phone lines…
‘No,’ she says, although I’m not entirely convinced, and walks again.
It’s not that the new sentences are wrong, but they don’t seem quite right either.
Transitional actions: A very common use of ‘start’ is to indicate a transition. This is very like the extended action above.
Cleo downs hers in one go, and finally starts to relax.
Even ten years is pushing it, if the lies you tell start to unravel, if your essential strangeness makes people pay attention to you.
Removing the ‘start’ creates the impression of a completed action. Cleo doesn’t relax. She relaxes a little bit, and will relax further as time passes – nothing is said about whether Cleo will relax completely. But that’s rather a lot of words to explain what ‘start’ made very clear.
What I’m seeing is a definite and deliberate subtlety of meaning in my use of ‘start’. Now, however, I’m going to feel self-conscious about its use in the future.
Looking quickly at The Slave-Girl and the Vampire and Serpent in Eden, each about 10,000 words, there are no instances of ‘begin’ or ‘began’ but each has eight instances of ‘start’ used with a verb, so my frequency is consistent. Looking at these and other of my writings, I estimate it’s an average of one such use of ‘start’ in every 1,000 words.
Maybe that is excessive.