Monday, December 2, 2013

When does the story start?

As I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo finishing post, I thought part of my problem with the novel I was working on was that I had started the story too early. This can be problematic, certainly.

It's hard to decide the point at which a story "starts". Sure, my story starts when I was born, say, but is that the most interesting part of my life? Certainly the circumstances of my birth might be considered interesting. When you're writing a novel, when do your characters' "on camera" lives start, and what is just backstory?

Backstory isn't bad, per se. You want to know what made somebody the person they are. But how much of it needs to be extensively narrated, and how much can be woven into the story as the action is taking place? You want there to be action, certainly. Action is what drives a story, what drives the characters from A to B to C. Action is what catches peoples' interests.

Nobody talks about Stepan Arkadyich's political tendencies and the running of his farm in Anna Karenina; they talk about Anna, and her affair. Really, she's in so little of the novel, it's strange to me that it's even called "Anna Karenina". In the edition I read, you don't even meet her until page 30, and she exits stage train long before the end of the novel. Maybe Russian novels aren't the best examples when talking about action, but in Crime and Punishment, certainly, everybody remembers the crime, and things like Raskilnikov's dream. The punishment is a bit longer in coming.

So, as I'm figuring out how to write a synopsis for Learn to Howl before entering a "final edit" stage (Angry Robot books is having an unagented, unsolicited submission period, deadline December 31), I'm keeping this in mind. Does Learn to Howl start where it ought to? Should the opening be reworked (again)?

How do you determine when your story starts?

6 comments:

  1. Some people theorize you should have conflict from the getgo to move things along, in other words, not spending ANY time on backstory. Me, I've started all over the place (and sometimes I've even hacked out entire chapters to move the beginning to a different place.)

    I guess that's my way of saying "I have no idea, but if I ever figure it out, I'll let you know!" ;)

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    1. I think it can be different for each story. My concerns for Learn to Howl may or may not be unfounded, and I have reworked openings to other stories with good subsequent reviews from my readers.

      So. I don't think there is ONE rule to it, but in general, one might point an eye toward action? I think that's one reason a prologue might be so popular; it lets you do some action-y back story, and then start the "real" story at a more moderate pace.

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  2. I think it might depend a lot on which genre you're writing. Expectations can differ widely. I struggled with this issue for my novel. I had a prologue and cut it. I had one chapter set in her childhood and cut it. And believe it or not, my editor sense that the story needed each of those things without ever knowing they'd been written. So we put them back. I guess my point is that I don't believe in hard and fast rules.

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    1. I think "it depends" is really the great thing about many, many writing questions. It depends on genre, the story itself, what "works" for the individual writer (and also what might work for that particular "type" of reader).

      How funny (and awesome!) about your editor's 6th sense. "Yes, something vital was removed..."

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    2. My editor is funny and awesome. I owe him a lot.

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    3. That's a dear hope of mine, really. When I get to that stage, the people I'm working with are amazing. I'm so glad for you!

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