On one of the group websites I belong to, there is a current discussion about where to start a story. I spent some time trying to analyze my intuitive answer by looking at the solutions of the writers of the books I am currently reading, and the answer seems to be start at the place where the character makes the move that puts his/her feet on the path that leads to the action in the plot. As close to the action as possible.
This answer is both very simple and very complex. The simple answer is to start a story when the situation is such that the character or characters have to act. They must. Or else dire things will happen.
For example, I am rereading To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wursts. The opening sentence tells the reader that the Princess has disappeared on the day of her betrothal to a Prince of a neighboring company. Our entire cultural history plus every trope we know about fantasy tells us, the reader, that somebody better do something – quick!
The characters are compelled to act to save the honor of the kingdom, the girl’s life and their own skins. Now!
In the opening sentence of another book I just finished, The Outback Stars, by Sandra MacDonald, the main character says something like if she has to spend another day “flying a desk” rather than serving on a starship she will attempt suicide. Maybe that is rhetoric and maybe not, but it impels her to finagle her way on to an “unhappy” starship. She feels that she has to do something. Maybe she felt that way yesterday or last week or whenever, we don’t know and we don’t care. Now, today is the day she takes the action that puts her on the spaceship and everything else follows (quickly) from the situation on the ship and her character.
In both of the above books, there is a lot of backstory. One of the hallmarks of the amateur is feeling the need to tell it all. One amateur I know insists that the reader has to know all the backstory to understand her tale. Six people sat there and told her we didn’t need all that, but did she listen? No. As the above two books went along, the writers of the above did feed us that backstory – to satisfy our curiosity about how these people got into this mess, but by the time our curiosity was satisfied, we were pretty wrapped up in the characters and how they were going to make it all come out right. The backstory can wait until then.
That is the simple answer. The complex answer for a writer is much more difficult. Where exactly does the story start? What is the point at which the characters have to act? I recently mentioned The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. In this opening, the main character doesn’t know that he has to save the world (before his eighteenth birthday, no less) or even that the world has to be saved. He only knows that he is unhappy.
That unhappiness propels him to a place he shouldn’t be to find the books of magic that will save him --and the world. The writers could have started the story much earlier, when his sister was banished or his mother deserted him, for instance. The argument can be made that at the point of his sister’s taking up the magic, she was compelled to act. But then we would have had to wait through a lot of down time for Kellen to grow up. The story would have had a slower start. Even though Kellen’s unhappiness with his situation is not a result of the impending doom of the people he has to save, it does provide him a motive to act. And get the story moving. And the causes of his unhappiness provide additional complications to the plot – in book three. Which wraps everything up nicely.
In To Ride Hell’s Chasm there may have been a number of places where the main character had to act before the Princess disappeared. For instance, he had to enter a tournament to become Captain of the Guard because he hadn’t saved up enough as a mercenary to support himself before he was injured too badly to get more mercenary jobs. Some writers would have started there and showed us how he developed the relationships that are crucial to the story. They wouldn’t have been wrong, and if they were skillful enough they wouldn’t have lost us along the way. Wursts throws us right into the maelstrom and never lets up. We are swept along into the story. We learn about his background as we go. She chooses to start her story there; other writers choose to start just before the situation gets interesting. That is an equally valid choice. That is why it is difficult to say exactly where to start a story.
Too many amateurs start too far before the interesting events. They don’t give the readers enough credit. Wursts assumes her readers will catch up and keep up. Her readers appreciate it.
So where should a writer start a story? The best way to learn is to read lots and lots of fiction. Particularly fiction that the writer likes in the genre he/she wants to write in. Then think: where did the writer start the story and why? Why there? Then make an informed choice.
That’s the complex answer – and the simple one.