1. Gretchen Brown
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    Gretchen Brown Member

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    At which point to start the story?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Gretchen Brown, Feb 11, 2013.

    I have been beating around the bush for some time in my story, because I don't know at which point I should jump in. I will try to make the summary as brief as possible. My story is set in 10th century Byzantium and has two main protagonists. One is a Varangian mercenary who has been exiled from his native Scandinavia and seeks redemption for his past crimes (though I have not narrowed down whether this is a conscious or unconscious motivation) and makes his way eventually to Constantinople. The second antagonist is a witch from Kiev who also eventually end of in Kiev with the motivation to murder the Byzantine emperor, responsible for betraying and massacring her people.

    My problem is, in history, there is a good four years between the point where this said emperor betrays said people and the point wherein he is (according to history) poisoned by his Imperial Chamberlain. Do I start the story at the plot to poison him, with the massacre four years hence and simply have the massacre as a back story to my female antagonist as a clue to what motivates her? Or should I start at the beginning and detail the whole sordid story of the violence done in present day Ukraine and also have to detail her trip down the Dnieper River and find a way for her to pass the time till history says I can finally off the emperor? LOL.

    And if the former, should I use flashbacks and kind of feed a little bit at a time to my reader, till they finally figure out what the motivation would be for such an apparently good person to give in to such a dastardly deed?

    Finally, I am wrestling with the whole Three Act structure to my story (yes I am still in the outlining process) and wondering if the motivation I have going on is sufficient to even make a story, or if these are only the stuff of sub plots. I am starting to get discouraged. Any advice on these points would be greatly appreciated.
     
  2. Gretchen Brown
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    Gretchen Brown Member

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    I am sorry that should have read "end up in Constantinople" not "who also eventually end of in Kiev".
     
  3. Gretchen Brown
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    Gretchen Brown Member

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    Grrr, I am making all kinds of goofs here. Sorry, late night. These are my PRO-tagonists, not antagonists. (Bangs head on the table, embarrassed)
     
  4. BitPoet
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    BitPoet Member

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    I'd go the neither-nor routine and start way before the "real" plot gets going. Flashbacks are evil (yes, you flashback-loving folks out there, I do know that not everybody thinks so, but they're incredibly hard to get right) and too much travelogue kills the mood. As it is also said to be a good thing to introduce the reader early on to special stylistic elements, I'd start in the youth of both characters and display a major, character-forming event for each that also shows a journey - on a much smaller scale, but for similar reasons - which will give you the opportunity to paint them as real people to which the reader can relate, even hint at the male's motive to become a mercenary. Don't stay with those events too long, fast-forward to the next major, plot-driving event. Now the reader already knows that there will be gaps in time and won't get surprised in chapter eight, so you're free to jump forward as far as you like when you need it. I'd not try the revealing thing with a questionable character before the readers had a chance to relate to him, otherwise you run the risk of losing most readers before you've revealed enough. Of course, that doesn't mean you need to lay bare his motives beforehand, just make sure the readers are certain he's not all bad and can feel that there is a strong conflict brewing inside him.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there are too many ways to choose from and no one but you can [or should!] decide which is best for your story... don't write 'by committee'... try a few different beginnings and see which one screams 'i'm the one!' to you...
     
  6. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Start with action. Period. Start with a battle or someone getting killed. Nuff said.
     
  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree with mamma - write a scene you think makes a good beginning; if it peters out, try a different one. At some point, the right beginning will hit you with a sledge hammer and off you go.
     
  8. Gretchen Brown
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    Gretchen Brown Member

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    Thank you all for your replies. My concern, BitPoet, with starting too far before the "real" action was that the story would drag. Perhaps not so much, if as one member pointed out, I started with a battle sequence which was what I was leaning towards anyway.

    I, too, am leery of flashbacks. They are too difficult to execute successfully. However, I really am attached to the idea of keeping my male protagonist's dark past a secret and letting the reader find that out later in the story. I want some surprising twists. So I suppose that might require a flashback, but it could be done artfully.

    I have my hands tied to a certain degree by the fact that it is a work of historical fiction and I do like to retain a certain amount of accuracy. So I need to have my characters at the locations said events were actually occurring when they were occurring. I have toyed a little with some fact fudging and moving things up a few years, but somehow I don't think I or my reader would be truly satisfied with that.

    Mamamaia, I am not trying to write by committee, but I understood this forum was supposed to be about writers giving each other feedback. Sometimes it is a little hard to see the forest for the trees. I know (mostly) what I want my characters to be and what I want them to do, but sometimes a different perspective may gain me insight I overlooked.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If the beginning drags because you started the story too early, you can cure that with a large pair of shears. Snip! It's gone.
     
  10. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    You don't necessarily need to start with physical action (like a battle scene). For me, the best place I try to find is the first most significant event of the story, something that is a defining moment that starts the drive forward. It could be something action-like, but it could equally be a character coming to a conclusion about something they want, or realizing that something isn't right with their life/world/universe. I argue that it has to be significant and relevant to the whole story, even if the moment itself is really small.
     
  11. creative_nothings
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    creative_nothings Member

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    Gretchen, I too struggle with when/where to start a story. Too early and you may lose the reader, too late and you may be forced to use flashbacks to better develop or explain your characters and their motives. The novel I am working on presently is having this same dilema as there is a lot of back story to introduce totally new characters but I haven't found a way to carry the story along yet because the real action doesn't start until my three main's actually meet. In any case, all I can really say is play around with it and pick the one that seems to work best for you. Good luck!
     
  12. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know it's been mentioned here very recently - some people love it but others hate the thought of a prologue. There may be a case for this if you are writing historical fiction and times / protagonists / even weapons need to be factually correct.

    I am doing something similar so this strikes a chord with me. I haven't actually given an exact date but it is before electricity and while my characters run around the world on this adventure they see certain landmarks that were only built after electricity. I'm wondering how much fantasists forgive... Sorry getting off subject, if there is a 4 year gap between events then maybe a factual prologue is a way out
     
  13. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know it's been mentioned here very recently - some people love it but others hate the thought of a prologue. There may be a case for this if you are writing historical fiction and times / protagonists / even weapons need to be factually correct.

    I am doing something similar so this strikes a chord with me. I haven't actually given an exact date but it is before electricity and while my characters run around the world on this adventure they see certain landmarks that were only built after electricity. I'm wondering how much fantasists forgive... Sorry getting off subject, if there is a 4 year gap between events then maybe a factual prologue is a way out
     
  14. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    If you distinctly state that electricity hasn't been discovered yet in your story's timeline and then write about electric appliances most readers will dislike the inconsistency and it will ruin the entire story for them. It is like telling a joke and at the end saying "oh, i also forgot to tell you something at the beginning without which the joke doesn't make sense". When i read a story i try to imagine it. If the author keeps giving me contradicting facts at some point i will lose interest.

    On the main topic, if they are simple primitive applications of electricity then you can put your story around the era electricity was first harnessed and was not widely spread for home use.
     
  15. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Xatron, maybe I worded it wrongly - I mention my characters using candlelight and lanterns giving the impression electricity hasn't yet been invented but then go on to talk about famous landmarks that were built in the time of electricity.

    It's not so blatant as to say "the caveman watched a youtube video on his i-phone" No mention of the empire state building being lit up like a christmas tree - just that they saw the ESB towering above the trees kinda thing.

    Is that getawayable? More than my invention of new words?
     
  16. Gretchen Brown
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    Gretchen Brown Member

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    Thank you, Erebh. I may well have to use a prologue. I have so much great information to use. And since I am writing historical fiction, I am striving to stay with the actual history as being the skeleton of my plot. This can be difficult. Also, I am struggling to get two main characters to interact with one another and they each have their own issues and are not even in the same geographical location in the beginning of the story. I really dislike the idea of using a flashback, but am beginning to think I may have to, because there is one aspect of my protagonist I really do';t want to reveal until well into the story.
     
  17. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    I would start with where the characters begin, just it feel like it would have more substance to start the readers journey along with teh characters. Helping to bond them and make the readers care. If you start too early then you are in danger of losing the readers interest with a history lesson as there is nothing defining to grasp them straight away. You could even start in the middle of a fight if needs be, and refer back to the past later. Flashbacks are an option but also monolouges, dreams and even an old man explaining the ripe history. In lord of the rings we started at a birthday party not when gollum found the ring or when sauran forged it. Gandalf was a great get out clause explaining what needed to be known at the right moment, same with the elf dude, cant remember his name ahhhhh i have to hand my fanboy badge in. Elrond thats it. phew
     
  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You could consider writing the first chapter last. Develop the story and then see which key elements came into focus and which faded. Then choose a beginning that teases the reader with what is to come.
     
  19. ketamineman
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    You have to start with something interesting or exciting. you have to grab your reader's attention right there. Personally, i like to start right in the middle of something and end in the middle of something.
     
  20. murasaki_sama
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    murasaki_sama Senior Member

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    Gretchen, there are dozens of ways to start a story. Some people prefer to start at the beginning of a character's life, and shape that character a bit before the main conflict arises. These stories, however, tend to be more about the characters than they are about the event.

    Your story sounds like it is about the historical event?

    Here are some my suggestions in how you might want to start your story.

    1. Use a prologue to explain the Emperor's atrocities. Then start the actual story with either the two character's crossing paths (even if they are not aware of it), or two, the central conflict - how to kill the Emperor. If you want to tease your reader, you might consider the first option. Personally, I find it amusing when the main characters cross paths a few times, before they actual directly interact. If, however, you want to focus on the intrigue of it all, the suspense and drama of regicide, consider opening with some part of the main conflict. This could be anything from one person making contact with another, spies talking or even the woman from Kiev arriving in Constantinople. Either way, start with conflict (not necessary action, but conflict) to hook the reader.

    2. Consider starting in medias res. This technique is used quite successfully in modern media, and in the Illiad. Instead of starting at the beginning, you start in the middle, or close to the end. For example, start with the poisoning. But don't finish it. Then, once you have hooked the reader, you can step back and start with character one or two arriving at the city. When using in medias res, don't go too far back in the character's lives or the history of the world. The reader is likely to tolerate some exposition before the conflict becomes obvious, but are unlikely to tolerate an entire life story that leads up to the poisoning.

    Now, if you truly wish your story to focus, not on the historical event, but on the characters. In that case, start as BitPoet suggested: by introducing the characters as children or youths, and working through major events of their life, those events which shaped them. You can either do this with one or both characters; remember to alternative POVs if you use it for both characters, rather than fully developing on and then the other.

    In regards to flashbacks - first, flashbacks and back story are not mutually inclusive terms. It is possible to engage in back story revelation without resorting to flashbacks. One way is to slowly introduce facts and references to the past, without having a data dump any one place in the story. Develop the characters' motives slowly, as you unveil their backstory. Flashbacks don't need to come into at all.
     

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