Image acquired without permission from Castlegate Press 2014 posting
The image above is from a post by Suzanne Hartmann, one of the co-founders of Castlegate Press, for a July 6, 2014 posting entitiled “Where Does the Story Start?”.
Starting a Story
One of the toughest parts of writing is figuring where your story starts. When initially writing, just write it out because often you don’t know where the story will start until you know where it ends and what happens inbetween.
Then come back to the beginning. The common agreement in 2016 is the story should start when the main character’s life begins to change. That rarely is when they are waking up or walking through a door – usually it is something like “The front door no longer had a doornob.” …
Some famous opening lines include:
Lord of the Rings “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
Pride and Prejudice “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The Stranger ” Mother died today.”
Metamorphosis “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
So a romance book I was editing started with three pages of exposition, describing the hero of the romance (the Point-of-View (POV)/narrator) leaving home, finding an apartment, finding a roomie, job hunting, and interviewing. Eventually we reach the point of the hero meeting his two possible love interests on a bus.
While his life was undergoing massive changes from the moment he left home until he got on the bus and met the love interests, none of that had anything to do with the plot. It was background. The job hunting, which took an entire page, ended with “I sat down, and he hired me.” (Actually it was “I sat down, and hired me” … but that is a different editing rant entirely.) The job is never mentioned again. The roomie is mentioned once, as a ride to the party and could have easily been included at the time of getting the ride. In fact two pages are dedicated to it when the ride is given because the roomie took his time getting ready. The parents are never mentioned except to leave home.
Half of the first chapter, close to 2,000 words, needed to be chopped. Nothing in those pages had ANY impact on the plot, romance, or character development. Maybe the job interview could have shown something about the hero’s character, but it was only “I sat down, and he hired me.” after the page of dead-end job hunting. At only 20,000 words this chop was a huge hit to the manuscript. (The first 10% of the length – this percentage is important so keep it in mind as we continue.)
And the manuscript should have never gotten to me in that form. One of content editing’s job is to define where the story starts, not line editing. All of that should have been decided long before it hit my desk. I should note this book was PREVIOUSLY self-published and I was reading it in relation to a reprint. So this story was already out there in the sales world and the author was wondering why he was getting no sales when he contacted me.
The reason? The romance story did not start with the romance, but a long backstory reading like a coming-of-age story – readers reviewing the 10% sample on Amazon received a false impression. Chuck the first part of the manuscript and have the beginning of the romance at the beginning of the story and suddenly readers know they have an interesting story with two possible love interests. Who is our hero going to end up with and is the romance going to break the friendship between the women? Much more interesting than a dead-end apartment with a dead-end job after leaving home and taking a couple of classes at the community college to get ahead.
Remember the start of the story is what most readers are seeing when trying to decide to put out their hard-earned money. Start the story when life gets interesting for the character.
A couple genre examples: For quest fantasy, start with why the character is willing to go on a quest. For military sci-fi, why the character is going to join the military. What had made the character’s life go off the rails so they are open to change?
Well, that is the editing rant about beginnings.
WRITING EXERCISE: For your work in-progress (WIP), review and see if the book would feel different if you add another chapter in front adding the day before to your story – then see what would happen if you just eliminate the first chapter. How would these changes impact your story?
READING EXERCISE: Have you ever read a book which seemed to start in the wrong place and you felt the first chapter or two were fillers? How about a book where you struggled through the first chapter not sure what is happening because not enough information was given i.e. the story started too late and you didn’t get time to be introduced to the changes?