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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Writing Discussion: How Do You Decide Where to Start the Story?

It is said to start the story at the point of action, even, dare I say, in the middle of the action.    

As long as the start of the the story isn't too far into the action to confuse the reader.

There are many ways to go about it. But, how does the writer discover the right way to start the story?

Central to any strong beginning is knowing your protagonist and your character's ordinary world before they are thrust into an event that will change everything as they know it.  And the consequences!  Conflict!  Action!

The reader must see it all and want to read more.

As a writer, I struggle with where to start my story.  For example, in my first draft of PB, I started the story right before my main character's life was to change.  However, since the story is told from a lyrical voice, I discovered it may not be close enough to the action and the story might have started off too slow.

My second draft brought the protagonist smack dab into the action -- her life changed, she hates it and wants to escape.  But the story was too far in and some of the sense of her emotional trauma was lost with this change.  Part of it was the POV change, from first to third. But most of it was from where I chose to start the story.  I found I missed my protagonist's struggle with what she lost, and wanted to show more of her journey. More importantly, she wanted it told.

I wrote my third and fourth versions from different points of the story, in first and third person, to see what resonated with me.

I think I've finally reached the right start to the story and it makes me very happy.  

How do you decide where to start your story? Do you know exactly where your story will start and it turns out to be spot on? Or do you have to work it, like me?

22 comments:

Christine M said...

On some of the stories I've written the spot to begin seems very clear. On others, not so much. I think in that case it's best to just start writing the story and the beginning will become clear (often when you get to it, 3 chapters in). But yet, I found in one story that I needed to back up my starting time by about six months - I started too far into the story.

The story will tell you - if you listen.

PJ Hoover said...

I seem to be getting better at learning where to start a story, though I think each story is different as you mentioned. One story may not call for major action at the start. Another may.
Now off to critique PB (sorry I'm late!).

Jim Harrington said...

I write mostly short stories, but I go through much the same process you do. Some stories I know where to begin. Most of the time, I start writing and decide at some point along the way where the story needs to begin. Once in a while, what needs to change surprises me. I was baffled about where to begin one story until I changed the setting. In another one, I realized the characters were reversed. Once I made the necessary changes, I knew exactly where to start.

Shelli said...

I always start with action. It might not be too far into the story but I always start my scene with action.

Vivian said...

Chris,
You're right. We just need to listen!

PJ,
No worries! Can't wait to find out what you think.

Jim,
Thanks so much for stopping by! I would imagine short story beginnings are very tricky. Best of luck with your writing!

Vivian said...

Shelli,
And there you are! Thanks for sharing where you start your story.

beckylevine said...

I love that you're actively playing with starting the story at different points & then "testing" that place. I just wrote an initial draft of a PB & I'm not thrilled--and maybe you've hit on my problem. Thanks!

Have you read Hooked, by Les Edgerton. It's all about these beginnings--that's the whole book, and I was really impressed. In fact, it might be time for a reread!

Vivian said...

Becky,
Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll have to check it out!

Good luck with all your writing projects! You're going to have a great spring!

Liz in Ink said...

One thing I've noticed consistently with my writing students is that MOST (not some, but MOST) of their stories begin on about page 2. The whole lead up is just about revving the engine...

Beth Kephart said...

Many drafts are needed, always, to find the true center, the story's meaning. You've gone through the process just as you should.

Morpho Ophelia said...

Love your post. Beginnings are so difficult for me. I need to try a few different ones and just practice and see which one fits.

Writing is a process. It's never what you think it is.

Vivian said...

Morpho Ophelia,
Glad you stopped by. Best of luck with your beginnings!

Beth,
Thank you for the validation.

Liz,
As always, you speak the truth.

Maya Ganesan said...

From all the stories I've started and never finished, I've gathered that a strong beginning is necessary in order for a writer to have faith in their story. So, for example, I'm probably not going to go very far in the one I'm working on right now because I don't think I have a very strong start.

So I think the remedy for this is to start it with a bang -- a major event that affects the story, perhaps. In fact, I need to get back to work rewriting that beginning.

Vivian said...

Maya,
Great observation. Best of luck with your rewrite!

lanna-lovely said...

The start is always the hardest part of stories for me to write -- prologues are easy, but the actual first chapter not so much.

I usually try to start just before a defining moment though, sort of the place in the story that sets off the chain of events that will cause the things in the story to happen... the moment isn't always something that really stands out, but when the story is finished it's usually clear that the things the characters say or do or experience in that first chapter were what started it all and if those things in the first chapter hadn't happened, then the story would've played out very differently... I don't know if that makes sense, but that's the only way I know how to put it.

laurasalas said...

Ooh, excellent question. My current wip is a pb with a storm as the 'main character.' But I have to show the day calm and quiet before the storm for the storm itself to have any impact. I've gone back and forth a few times on how long to spend on the quiet--need enough so the storm has more impact, but not so much the reader is bored.

It's a short ms, so I'm talking the difference between 7 and 10 lines. Not much difference in word count, but a significant difference in pacing. I *think* I have it where I want it right now. We'll see:>)

Vivian said...

Laura,
Sounds good. I would imagine you really have to work it with picture books. They are hard to write! And by the way, congrats on the new book!

Lanna-Lovely,
You sound like you have a good handle on your stories. Way to go!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to sound like the biggest nimrod since all of you can tell when your beginning isn't right. How do you tell? I keep coming back to see if someone will reveal the secret. People keep telling me my beginnings don't work, but I like them, but even if I try to fix them, I don't know where to start.

I hope you understand that I need to be anonymous for this one.

Holly said...

This might sound a little crazy (but hey, I'm among friends!) - I begin the story where the character starts "talking" to me. I hear the voice loud and clear, and it startles me. I hope it will also startle readers enough to want to know more.

Laini Taylor said...

Oh, this is totally something I struggle with! I wrote so many different beginnings for Silksinger. And I never can REALLY move on into the meat of the story until I feel like I've got the beginning right.

Above all, I want it to be really intriguing. Usually it's somewhat in the middle of something happening, with enough intrigue to generate curiosity but not to confound. So tricky!

Heather Zundel said...

I heard a piece of advice from an agent that I will never forget: Start your story as late as you possibly humanly can and have it still make sense.

This is a tried and true method for me. After seven subsequent drafts, I've ended cutting over four chapters before where my story really needed to start. I thought "but they need to know [X] or I have to introduce [X] first!" Not so. It's brilliant where it is now, and is where I should have started in the very beginning.

Start as late as you can. ^_^

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