It’s been more than a year, but welcome back to Writing Problems Sometimes, this time with an episode about how to properly begin a story. I know, it seems like that’s pretty easy, and who on earth needs help with that, but trust me, it’s not easy, and help is a good thing.
It really is.
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“Where the fuck do I begin?!” or How to find the perfect place to begin your story
I’m pretty sure we all asked ourselves the above question at least on one occasion during our time as writers. Because let’s face it, nothing sucks like a beginning gone wrong (I think I mentioned that before. Somewhere in between angry curses at the universe and a bunch of profanities…). When the beginning is wrong, the story is likely to turn out feeling off as well. All the more important that we find the right time and place to start the story, the exact right point on the time line that we arbitrarily define as The Beginning. It’s not so much the real beginning, though, but the point we feel is best to jump into the story and start telling it.
Because here’s the deal: Stories don’t really have a beginning. All there is is a point that’s good enough to serve as one, the point where we can begin telling the story without withholding too much background information. We’re treading a fine line, and we feel the pressure to “get it right”. I find this incredibly hard. Some of you might not; you might say “what, why, it’s so easy, just pick a day and start the goddamn story”. For those, however, who need to put a little more effort into their beginnings (and I know you’re out there, believe me, I know), here’s a little beginner’s guide to beginnings. Lame pun intended.
I’ll start by putting it in a nutshell: Start when the story begins. Don’t hit me, it’s true! The problem is just that, well, there’s more than one story. We have the main character’s story, the story of their life. We have the story of the world our story is set in. We may have the villain’s story, too. And I’m sure their stories are interesting as well (no irony here, they probably are). But they’re not the stories we’re trying to tell. We will tell the plot. Now, plot =!= story, but for our purposes, it is, because that’s what it is: the story we want to tell is the plot of our novel (short fiction is completely different from this – it MUST start precisely when the “action” starts, it has no room for anything else). So what we have to figure out is the point when “character’s backstory” changes into “epic plot about fight of Good vs. Evil with lots of drama in-between”. It’s easiest to do it this way: What was the precise day that changed your MC’s life from “ordinary” to “future hero”? Example: for the heroine in Under the Northern Star, it is the day the mages come to town and discover who she is. For my MC in Renegade, it’s the day she decides to stop a government hit squad and save a “traitor” from execution. Those days and their events changed the course of each character’s life drastically. Before that, they lived ordinary lives; afterwards, they decides to take action and change the course of history. (Sort of. But that’s not the point here.)
Now we have a Day Zero, so to speak. Now, we could decide to start the story in medias res, and if it works, why not? For Renegade, it could work because the story itself has a lot of running, hiding, starting riots and shooting stuff. The cast is one that allows for explanations of a lot of backstory via dialogue and/or action and interaction. It doesn’t need ten pages of Allie doing regular (read: boring) stuff. I could still write it, but it’s not necessary.
Still, some stories require a little build-up. Under the Northern Star is pretty different in that regard. It’s hard to explain, but the MC kind of needs this extra chapter of normal life; it adds something to the story that would be missing if I just started with her running through the woods in fear.
Now, as the author, it’s up to you to decide whether your story is suitable to have an abrupt beginning. If so, be happy, stop reading, and go start writing your story, what the hell are you waiting for, goddammit? If not, feel free to go binge-eat a whole bucket of [insert flavour of choice] ice-cream, it’s okay, I won’t judge. Or you can now take your story (you know, the plot-story) and go on poking and prodding it to find out how many words it will take to tell the reader what you think is necessary before the plot really starts.
I think the main reasons for a “boring” (as in, MC does boring normal stuff instead of shooting fireballs at demons) first chapter are a) backstory and b) atmosphere. Both are valid reasons to let the first chapter or two take place before Day Zero. However, don’t let it be too long before that day, and make sure it’s really necessary to include the information in those passages. Infodumps in first chapters are a common problem and tend to make people put the book down and never pick up again because if the author can’t write a compelling first chapter, why should I think they can write a compelling story? If you have to get this off your chest, do this: include the first chapter as you think it’s necessary. When you are three, four chapters in, go back to that first chapter and read it again; if you find that all the info is in the story anyway, delete it, it’s unnecessary. If you still find bits and pieces your reader needs to know, but don’t fit into the main story, only keep those bits and pieces in and label the whole thing “Prologue”. People don’t expect prologues to be super-thrilling, in fact, readers expect a prologue to be completely different from the rest of the book (“…otherwise it’d be the first chapter, right?”). Even if the prologue is a little boring, chances are they’ll simply skip it and at least give the actual story a try. It’s kind of cheating, but not really; you get to keep the info in the story, but the reader has the option to skip it and read the story without it. Mostly, though, the story doesn’t need it and is fine without the additional, super-important information. Sad fact of life.
Atmosphere is a little different. Let me make this clear, I don’t think a prologue ever sets the atmosphere for the rest of the story. Of the few prologues I wrote, most were sorta-mysterious-but-not-really-because-we-know-the-little-girl-will-eventually-grow-up-to-be-the-MC. Then I went ahead and let the story begin with a bunch of guys getting drunk and singing dirty songs. Atmosphere killed. The first chapter doesn’t do this kind of thing. Since it appears to be part of the plot-story, it needs to feel that way. And the way it feels sets the mood for a good part of what comes next. Again, example time! In Under The Northern Star, the first chapter has Tyra going to work, interact with her stepmother and her best friend, and bang a dude she’s only seeing twice a year. It’s her life, and she likes it, even though she’s wondering what she would do if she could ever leave that damn small town she’s stuck in. It sets a mood that I need to make the following chapter more intense, the chapter that is Day Zero and takes all that away from her. The rest of the book deals with how she tries to regain what she lost, to find something new and finally defend and fight for what she loves. I feel it’s important to show the reader what matters to her so it hurts a lot more when it’s taken away from her. It also gives the second part of the story more impact, when she’s finally built a new life for herself, and again some douche is trying to take it all away. And finally, it highlights the differences in her character before and after; she’s still scared to death by the danger, but instead of running like she did on Day Zero, she takes up arms and fights back. Without that first chapter, a lot of things in that story wouldn’t work the way I want them to.
That’s what you, the author, need to decide: Is there anything important before Day Zero that adds to the story? If so, start there. If not, in medias res might be your best bet. After all, even if you later decide you need a little more info before your MC goes off shooting at aliens, you can still rewrite chapter one and add it. In most such cases, that’s totally enough. Don’t give your readers too much too soon. Let them figure things out by themselves. The story develops as much in your readers’ minds as it does through your words.
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Well. That was lengthy. Still, I felt like it was necessary, after seeing half a dozen “where should my story begin” threads in the past few weeks, and that’s only the NaNo forums. And writing a decent beginning is hard. Anyone who doesn’t have trouble with that, you’re a hero. The rest might find this piece useful. And if all else fails, striptease! (That has a context, I promise!)
Also, on Guild Wars 2 related news (yes, feel free to stop reading now^^), my warrior (you know, this guy) is level 80, finally! Now that I’m not the pathetic person anymore who only has one character on max level and will never have another, I can go about crafting a fun weapon for myself. Which will likely take another year. Sighs. But those legendaries look so cool!
I have weird problems. Good thing my writing ain’t one of ’em for now XD
€dit: Also, WordPress seems to hate paragraphs these days, it won’t let me create any. Goddammit…