Monday, October 8, 2012

Starting Where the Story Starts

Start where the story starts. We hear this all the time and it should be one of the easiest pieces of advice a writer gets.

So how come sometimes it's not?

I've had so many beginnings to my MS Daze and Knights that I've lost count- proof that I've been having a hard time finding where the story starts. For me, the story starts when my MC lands in medieval times. My first few drafts had three chapters of her at home first, which I cut down to two, then one, then cut out altogether in the vein of starting where the story starts and also to slash some word count. Then I had a beta say that she wants to see my MC at home so we can see what she's missing when she's travelled, what she could potentially be giving up. So I wrote a whole new first chapter of her at home. Now I've received the advice that just that one chapter isn't enough- it needs more.

This got me thinking... for me, those chapters at home are really just backstory. Or intro-story. Here's my MC, this is what her life is like, this is what she's like... then boom, it's all taken away. I've been struggling over what to add, what's necessary to the story without just being info or random happenings.  For me, if this isn't really where the story starts, what can I put in to make readers care about the character enough to want to take the journey with her?

I haven't found answers yet. I did find a great example of exactly what I'm struggling with though. Last week I read Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, an awesome YA historical that takes place in the 1400s. The story is of a girl who escapes an arranged marriage and joins a convent of women who serve Death- they are assassins. The story starts just as she's about to get married. For me, the real story could start when she gets to the convent, or even when she gets her first assignment. The other stuff we could have learned through splashes of backstory here and there. But would we have cared about her as much? I'm not sure. Robin LaFevers does an excellent job with those first chapters. They are a setup of the story to come, but they're fast-paced and interesting. We understand the MC and the choices she makes later based on those first few chapters.

Starting where the story starts isn't always as cut-and-dry as we want it to be. That's why it's important to take another piece of advice we always hear: Read Read Read! It's the best way to learn.


  1. i've changed the beginnging of fire and ice countless times (once just two weeks ago!) so i know how you feel...have tried starting at the medieval times then doing flashbacks? Or is that just more complicated? I guess i can't really give you advice since I've never read it, but do what you think is best, it's your story. Good luck!

  2. Given the importance placed on that opening chapter and those first few lines, I'm sure we've all given this a lot of thought. I've been in a similar situation with my WIP. I originally started it at the first dramatic moment (start with action). But then, as the story developed, I decided that the point I started the book actually works better as the first cliff-hanger. So I wrote a new first chapter that leads up to the cliff-hanger event that used to be the beginning of the novel. Not only is it important to get the reader past the first few lines, but we need to get them wanting to read on after the first chapter.

    Now I just need to make sure my new chapter one starts in a way that entices the reader! But at least I have a better idea of where the story should start. And you're right, Melanie: reading helps a lot, so you can see what kinds of openings work for others.

    All the best with your novel! :)

  3. This isn't an easy puzzle to riddle out. I know exactly what you mean about the whole back story versus getting right down to it. I guess the problem is that you can't have a meaningful story unless you know who you're rooting for and why. The early part of the story has to have tension, but that doesn't always mean action. If you want to see one of the best executed introduction chapters, read Across the Universe by Beth Revis.

    The key is to have tension in those early chapters that gets resolved later in the plot. Good luck, cause it's not easy.

  4. I think the story starts wherever you, the author, think the most interesting piece of action is. If you think her backstory is necessary and interesting, and you can make it necessary and interesting, then why not have the story start there? Just because there are bombs going off in Die Hard doesn't mean the movie should start there, just because it's the most exciting.

    I think all this advice we get about starting the story in the "right" place is really just to make authors wary of mass backstory, info dumps, numerous flashbacks, unnecessary prologues, etc. at the beginning of stories. I think Stephen King said there are a thousand ways to tell the same good story, and ten thousand bad ones. As long as you choose a good one, does it really matter?

  5. What a tough decision! I know what you mean, there. I had a lot of back and forth with the previous novel I queried--cutting the first few chapters, then going back and adding more. I think it comes down to what you said, that you just have to make that connection with the character so the reader cares what happens to them. Easy enough said, right? Good luck with finding the right beginning!

  6. So true! Read read read is definitely the best way. I went back to school for my english degree when I was pregnant (could only take 2 quarters, but I learned a LOT), yet I still continue to learn from every book that I read, and I'm not paying thousands of dollars to do it.

    My suggestion for your quandary is to completely finish the novel first. If you're stuck on the beginning, just plug through the rest of the story. You never know what's going to come to you during the story that may end up changing the beginning anyway, then when the beginning comes to you, write it down QUICK. I've lost so many brilliant pieces of dialogue or beautiful lines because I was too lazy to write them down RIGHT AWAY, and what a darn shame it was... Then, while Beta readers are necessary and usually so insightful and BRILLIANT, you also need to stick to your guns about some things. Suggestions are great, but if you think the story is strong, try not to take in too many suggestions from a small amount of people.

    A reader told me once that my character sounded too young in the first few chapters, but I completely disagreed, and I got no such other feedback from other readers. Some things, you need to remain strong in. Everyone is going to have their own opinions, and go by majority. Once you get published (ah, the dream =)you may have those few that wanted those chapters, but the majority may love where you started it.

    Basically, YOU are the writer, and while we always, always, always need outside eyes to show us our weaknesses, we also need to stay true to our stories.

    Stay strong, finish that story, and GOOD LUCK!