Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Starting at the beginning of your story..the real beginning.

Believe it or not, The Guns of August is a book about a certain time...August.

More to the point, it's a book  about events taking place in Europe during August of 1914, as the great powers of Europe bluffed, blustered, and ultimately stumbled into WWI. (The Guns of August is considered to be the definitive book about the start of WWI).
August was the final month of decision for the European powers--the month that turned the short war that all the principles thought they were fighting into the long, bloody, tragic war that actually occurred. Germany, France, Russia and Britain reached the decision to go to war in late July and early August, but the event that many people associate with starting the war is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in June of 1914.

So it would make sense that The Guns of August would start somewhere within that 1914 timeline--but that isn't the case at all. Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Guns of August, started her book with a description of the funeral of Edward Vll in May, 1910. It's the perfect place to begin the narrative, because the leaders of Europe attended the funeral, and the intrigue at that event does a great job of setting the stage for the conflagration to come.

Tuchman then spends several chapters covering other aspects of the lead-up to war, and the events of August, 1914 aren't delved into until chapter 6 of her book.

The point of the above dissertation? Barbara Tuchman knew what she wanted to write about--and she knew just where to start the story for maximum effect. Tuchman realized that the reader needed background in order to understand the story she wanted to tell, but she never forgot her main subject (described aptly by the title of the book)--and the result is a masterpiece.

Budding fiction writers often get into big trouble when they confuse background details with the plot of their story, and they get into further trouble when they enter the story at the wrong place in time. Sometimes they start the story too soon, and the book ends up with 80 pages of fluff before the real story begins. Or worse, the story doesn't start when it should, and the reader is left abandoned on page 2 in the middle of nowhere without anything to hold on to, and shortly thereafter gives up on the book.

Starting the story at the right point in time is one of the most critical judgments a writer can make--and there's no set formula for success.Every book is different, and a writer has to go with his or her gut and hope it leads in the right direction.

I knew I had a good start on my book, Judgment Tramp, when I reached the halfway point of the first draft and I was still comfortable with my first chapter. Looking back, I realize that the action in the first chapter provided a tipping point for the story--and all of the intrigue, twists and turns in the book could logically flow from the moment in chapter 1 when a bomb went off in Maggie's car. That event was the "what" of the book, and the reaction of the characters in the book to that event is the "why" of the story. Everything I did in the plotting of the book related directly to those two principals, and in doing so I successfully followed the same logic that Barbara Tuchman used when writing her book.

The real beginning to a story is the beginning that makes everything afterward flow smoothly towards an exciting, satisfying ending--but even more important, a good page 1 needs to lead to a great page two, and a better page 3, and.... 
Finding that entry point into a story is easy sometimes, but often it isn't immediately apparent--and I think most writers struggle with it more often than not.

When I look back at the work I haven't finished, or the books I wrote that I'm unhappy with, the entry point into the story is usually a major part of the problem. Just like Barbara Tuchman, it's important to know what story we want to tell, and then determine the best place to start in order to give just the right amount of back story to draw your readers in, and build toward a satisfying climax and ending.

So what questions should we be asking ourselves to help us determine the best point at which to start our story?

I can think of three different timelines right now:

1. The moment when the protagonist first realizes the magnitude of the challenge that awaits. In Judgment Tramp, this moment is when the bomb explodes in Maggie's car. Someone dies in that explosion, but for my protagonist, Eb Maclean, the horror of the murder is initially secondary, because he realizes that the bomb was meant to kill his sister--and that's all he can think about. 
In a romance novel, it could be the moment when a woman meets her eventual lover--even if the character doesn't initially understand what's happening.

2. The moment when a character understands the cost of a prior action. A novel might start with the death of a character, and then flashback to the events that led to his or her demise.

3. A funny, absurd, or poignant moment in your protagonist's life that is interesting solely because of what it reveals about the character. Lawrence Sanders was adept at using that device in his Archy McNally mystery series. The actual story can begin later--but the beginning can make the reader fall for the character and instill a desire to learn more about his or her life.

What do you think? Give me some ideas on how you might approach this in your work. I'd love to get your perspective!

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