The Alternatives

If you choose not to begin before the beginning, not to depict the status quo situation, you are faced with the problem of simultaneously introducing the character and the dilemma he's facing, then filling the reader in on the character's status quo situation later. Say you choose to begin your story at the exact moment of the beginning, the moment of the firing:

Joe held the pink slip in his hand, feeling an icy chill run up his spine. He looked across the desk at the boss, who was staring back impassively, the smoldering stub of a cigar jammed in his mouth.

Since we don't know Joe or his situation, we don't know whether his being fired is justified. The reader therefore withholds sympathy for Joe until he finds out. Forcing your reader to withhold sympathy at the opening of your story is not a wise move on the part of the writer. At the beginning you want to gain sympathy for your protagonist as quickly as possible.

Another alternative is to begin after the beginning of the story:

Joe walked down Fifth Avenue in a misting rain carrying a box full of junk he'd just cleaned out of his desk. How can I tell Sara that I've been fired, he thought, when we've just bought the new Porsche?

The problem here is that not only do we miss knowing Joe before the firing, but we miss what is potentially a very dramatic scene: the firing itself. That scene could, of course, be retold in a flashback, but since we would then already know the outcome of the firing scene, and would already have seen the impact the firing had on the character, much of the scene's tension and suspense would be lost.

Better to start before the beginning. The reader will know the character and will sympathize with him, and you can dramatize the change in the status quo situation that marks the beginning of the story.

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