Thursday, April 9, 2015

Where to Start Your Story

FINALLY! A craft post! Allons-y!

Way way back in the halcyon days of last November, someone on my yearly NaNo thread asked me "where do you start your story?" I love this question for a lot of reasons, but mostly because 1) there are so many different places to start any story, and 2) different starts can create entirely different reading experiences, even if the basic plot is the same.

One of the first things I think about when I sit down to actually plot a book is where I'm going to start. As a general rule, the best place to start your story is always wherever things get interesting,  BUT (and here's where it gets cool), "where things get interesting" can vary enormously depending on your audience/genre.

Take this plot I just made up:

When she was nine, Mary's family was eaten in a dragon raid. Swearing revenge, she tracks down a knight of the Sacred Order of Dragon Hunters and demands to join. After saying no many times, the knight eventually gives in and agrees to train her. Many years later, Mary has become an amazing Dragon Hunter and is ready to avenge her parents. But when she finally enters the cave of the dragon who took her family so long ago, she discovers everything she thought she knew is wrong, and the real monsters are the ones she never suspected.

Exciting stuff! Now, where would you start this story? There are a lot of good, exciting spots, many of which could work, but which spot is best depends entirely on what kind of story you want to tell.

For example, if I wanted to write a YA, I'd start when the wounded and determined child Mary approaches the knight and demands he teach her to hunt dragons, and then show how she never gives up even when he says no. Once he eventually gives in, I'd show her training and have her finally get to the dragon cave for the mid-book climax, where I'd turn everything on it's head.

On the other hand, if I wanted to write a gritty, dark fantasy about a woman on a path of bloody revenge, I would jump way ahead and start when Mary is already a professional Dragon Hunter doing her final prep for the hunt she's been training her whole life for, only to get in and realize that everything she's assumed up until now is wrong, and things are much darker and more dangerous than simple dragon killing.

Or, if I wanted to play this plot as a straight up Fantasy romance, I could even start the book at the moment when she enters the dragon cave and discovers the dragon she's been training her whole life to kill is actually a super hot dude who's never even heard of her parents and the whole thing was a set up and now they have to work together to find the true killers.

All of these stories would have the same basic set-up plot: girl loses parents to dragon, girl learns dragon hunting for revenge, girl goes to kill dragon and things go wrong. In execution, however, these stories are in fact wildly different in everything from tone to the end secret. All of the above are valid entry points for their particular versions of the story, but what I'm really trying to get across here is that the beginning of a story is not a fixed point. Where you enter a novel depends as much on your audience and what kind of story you're trying to tell as it does on plot.

This isn't to say opening with a hook isn't important. It's vital! Think of the last time you picked up an unknown book. Did you keep reading if the opening page was boring? What about the opening paragraph? Of course not. You put that sucker down, and rightfully so, because the author failed to hook you. This is why asking questions like "where should I start my novel?" is so important, because if you can't keep a reader past the first page, they're not going to be your reader.

Again, though, see above. Not all hooks are the same for all genres and readers. A young girl struggling with the impotent rage of seeing her parents eaten by dragons is a powerful opening, but only if that's the tone you're going for in your book. What's gripping for a gritty Fantasy might turn off readers who're here for a lighthearted dragon/dragon hunter romance and vice-versa. This is another reason why it's so important to know your genre before you start writing. Being published means writing for an audience, and the more you know about how to entertain and hook that audience, the more successful and happy your career will be.

I know all of this seems like a lot to think about for something as simple as an opening scene. Personally, I didn't really start thinking about this stuff until I was multiple novels into my career. I simply wrote what felt like a natural beginning and worked from there. That's not a bad way to write, especially if you have good story instincts, but it can't possibly match the level of control and finesse that comes from actually knowing and thinking about what you're doing.

Good novels don't happen by accident. They are a string of conscious, considered choices. Writing is work, and like any work, the more thought and finesse and skill you put into it, the better the end product becomes.

I hope this post helps you find new ways to think about how best to begin your own books! As always, thank you for reading, and I wish you nothing but the best of luck in your writing journey!



leslie said...

Hooray! You're back. Best writing craft posts on the web, Rachel! Can I ask a question?

When I'm plotting, I get paralyzed by all the choices. No sooner do I decide one something, I start coming up with other ways it could happen. I get all confused as to what will work the best in the story. What if I make the "wrong" choice and my story goes astray? Etc, etc.

How do you get past that, if you have it at all?

Rachel Aaron said...

Hey Leslie!

First up, thank you! I'm so glad you enjoy my writing posts.

You ask an interesting question, and one I've actually struggled with A LOT in my current book. That said, I'm afraid I don't have a fool proof strategy. Every plot choice will have up sides and down sides, and part of being an author is make the call as to which choice is best.

Fortunately, writing is not a performance art! If you screw up, you can always go back and fix it before you submit. This gives us writers an enormous amount of freedom to be risky and try new things, because we can always backtrack if we mess up. The book is never done until you say so.

I hope that helps, and good luck on your plot choices!

Tam Francis said...

Great post, found you from the Google+ for Writers board. Love your points and examples. Something I recently heard was to start in the middle or at least a third into your story and slowly fill in back story, although I'm not sure that's always possible, or you even know for sure where the middle is.

Also, it would seem if you're a pantster and not a plotter it would be harder to determine beginnings.

I recently went to a workshop where we talked about the essential first 5 in the first 5 pages. So much to learn. Have you found that the more your learn, the harder it is to write?

Thanks for the advice.

~ Tam Francis~

Tam Francis said...

Forgot to add, NICE Dr. Who reference! ;) Love me some Tenant.

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Kai Bishop said...

'Or, if I wanted to play this plot as a straight up Fantasy romance, I could even start the book at the moment when she enters the dragon cave and discovers the dragon she's been training her whole life to kill is actually a super hot dude who's never even heard of her parents and the whole thing was a set up and now they have to work together to find the true killers.'


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