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How to know the right time to begin the narrative

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How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Supercollider » Sat Feb 02, 2013 11:15 am

I recently read this advice, can't recall who said it but it was "start your story as late as possible." Which tends to be the opposite of my natural inclinations. So I'm trying to break this trend and start at an exciting point which truly introduces the main interesting arc of my novel. Sometimes I will allow myself to indulge in backstory that I know I will later cut in order to satisfy that urge to know what the main character's maternal grandmother's maiden name was, etc. (And what Granny did for a living, too :lol: ).

Right now I have a lot of manuscript about aliens coming to earth and I started it way back when with my main character being in on the first "blip" on the screen of the alien craft. But more and more I'm realizing the story has always been about the interactions between them and humans - and their own internal interactions :alien: going on which ends up affecting humanity and humanity affecting their culture in turn. So I'm trying to find a critical introductory point in time when the interesting conflicts begin.

But I don't mean to digress so much about my particular story as much as just get feedback from others as to how they've approached this issue and perhaps developed their writer's instinct so that it becomes easier over time to determine when a story should begin. Science fiction is sometimes about such macrocosmic things, yet the fiction uses the microcosm of the characters as they live out their lives within all that's going on around them to paint the big picture. Forest -> Trees -> back to Forest, as it were.

So please - jump in and give me all your wonderful wisdom on this! Thanks! :)
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Bmat » Sat Feb 02, 2013 5:53 pm

I am intrigued by the idea of starting the story as late as possible. It is contrary to what I would think. I'd think a hook should be the start. Then action, dropping in some backstory to continue drawing the reader in, then full blown story. But if the reader is not caught up in the story fairly near the beginning, they may not continue to read.If the story is not apparent soon enough, I wonder what would keep the reader reading.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby nightlock » Mon Feb 04, 2013 3:02 am

Bmat wrote:I am intrigued by the idea of starting the story as late as possible. It is contrary to what I would think. I'd think a hook should be the start. Then action, dropping in some backstory to continue drawing the reader in, then full blown story. But if the reader is not caught up in the story fairly near the beginning, they may not continue to read.If the story is not apparent soon enough, I wonder what would keep the reader reading.



I think this is the basic premise behind the advice. You should not begin your story with background information because (especially in this day and age of high speed and haste) you will lose readers is you didn't catch their attention on page 1.

There are so many ways of catching someone's attention:
In Medias Res.
Epic first sentence (Call me Ishmael.)
Use of language (Concerning Hobbits)
Catching a glimpse of the previous adventure.
etc.

But a good way is to start your narrative late, and introduce the backstory gradually as you go along. Or you can skim the backstory. Condensing it down to a few lines so people get the idea, see the intro of The Fellowship Of The Ring movie.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Supercollider » Thu Feb 07, 2013 9:40 pm

I think it's coming together - I have several characters who have connections over the course of the storyline. (It spans more than one generation.) I realize that if I sort out what events are going to happen and which character will be most directly involved in each, that will help a lot.

The big decision I face first is deciding whether the main character I started with, when I first conceived this novel during NaNoWriMo 2009, is going to be the one most essential to the storyline, or if it is her connection with the others that is simply the glue that holds it all together. I don't want to have her be a "Mary Sue" character, either. But she is the character I identify with a lot. I also realized there is a lot I don't know - or haven't settled on - about her! :?: So writing a character sketch/bio will be a good thing to do. For the other characters as well, but especially for this one.

I'm doing a very omniscient viewpoint, too, so I don't always have to tell the story from this character's viewpoint. Some of it will be from other major characters each in turn and some might be more simply background narration, but hopefully not boring! :smt015
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby nightlock » Sat Feb 09, 2013 1:16 am

Are you bound to telling the story chronologically? I'd like to direct your attention to the book 'Cryptonomicon' by Neal Stephenson.

It has some of the same points you talk about. The main character of sorts is somewhat a mary sue (though not annoyingly so), the story deals with a large extended family and occurs over several generations. The chapters, however, jump between WWII and the mid 90's whenever it likes. It helps keep the story fresh and allows you to use several cliff-hangers in a single work (the WWII character is about to be attacked by Nazi spies when the chapter ends and the next chapter is about his grandson! Ahhh). Another upside to this is, that even though there is a main protagonist, the author spends similar amounts of time to the three other major characters, diminishing the mary sue effect.

Be warned though, Stephenson is one of those novellists who like to go on and on and on about seemingly unnecessary things. His works generally tend to go upward of 1000 pages.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Alex F » Sat Oct 19, 2013 1:02 pm

An interesting notion,

I don't fully agree with it I must confess... if you're not telling a story then why are you writing a book? If you are writing about things happening which have no relevance in some way to moving the plot forward then its wasted space.

Bmat is right I think to say that you need to hook people. You can only get away with so much exposition before the reader gets bored. My tact has always been to mix the two together and keep them running side by side. Start the story with a bang, get the reader hooked on the action, make them want to understand the world this action is taking place in because if there is no story then back story and world details soon get boring. Its interesting but its not the story you are telling, its there to intrigue people when they are hooked into your narrative.

Then develop the world and have it so that your reader is getting both at the same time, the story is being told but they are learning about your world as they do. If your world is interesting enough you can ensure that the gist of your story and your narrative is being backed up and kept interesting by their developing understanding of the world that you have created. They want to know what is going to happen but they also want to understand your world better in order to appreciate it.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Supercollider » Mon Dec 16, 2013 8:47 pm

Alex F wrote:An interesting notion,

I don't fully agree with it I must confess... if you're not telling a story then why are you writing a book? If you are writing about things happening which have no relevance in some way to moving the plot forward then its wasted space.

Bmat is right I think to say that you need to hook people. You can only get away with so much exposition before the reader gets bored. My tact has always been to mix the two together and keep them running side by side. Start the story with a bang, get the reader hooked on the action, make them want to understand the world this action is taking place in because if there is no story then back story and world details soon get boring. Its interesting but its not the story you are telling, its there to intrigue people when they are hooked into your narrative.

Then develop the world and have it so that your reader is getting both at the same time, the story is being told but they are learning about your world as they do. If your world is interesting enough you can ensure that the gist of your story and your narrative is being backed up and kept interesting by their developing understanding of the world that you have created. They want to know what is going to happen but they also want to understand your world better in order to appreciate it.


Sometime this past year I wrote a new first couple of pages which were a lot more interesting than whatever I wrote first when I banged out that very first NaNo of this novel. I dropped a bunch of hints about things that the reader should at least be moved to wonder about. And I think I did it subtly . . . like saying the human female main character now understood more why her alien friend had been uneasy, after the terrorist bombings . . . and other things like that. And I kept it breezy in tone but hopefully will have my readers going "What terrorist bombings?" "Who is (my villain)?"

I may have overdone it with this new, jam-packed with narrative hooks version, but it was fun to write :D and it did feel more energetic! If it seems overstuffed, I can move some of the exposition to subsequent chapters. :smt024
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Achilles » Tue Dec 17, 2013 4:21 am

I went with the write later approach for ages until I realised I kept on growing up. Now I have writers block. Interesting villain.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby mikep » Thu Jan 02, 2014 2:17 am

I've streamlined the process over time, but essentially I have three steps:

1.) Identify the premise of the story.

A premise consists of the parts: the protagonist, the protagonist's goal, and what obstacle(s) or conflict(s) stands between the protagonist and its goal. (e.g., a soldier has to transport an enemy POW across dangerous territory)

2.) Figure out the cimax and what leads to it.

3.) Start the story more or less at the beginning of the conflict.

In a novel, where you have a LOT of room to do stuff, you might start with the "normal" state of life for the protagonist. Then, at some point, the status quo is altered; the protagonist is called to action.

Just remember that the bulk of any story is the premise. Think of the beginning of a novel as the place where you "arrange" all the key players in preparation for that.

And if all else fails, then go here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby mikep » Thu Jan 02, 2014 2:22 am

nightlock wrote:
Bmat wrote:I am intrigued by the idea of starting the story as late as possible. It is contrary to what I would think. I'd think a hook should be the start. Then action, dropping in some backstory to continue drawing the reader in, then full blown story. But if the reader is not caught up in the story fairly near the beginning, they may not continue to read.If the story is not apparent soon enough, I wonder what would keep the reader reading.



I think this is the basic premise behind the advice. You should not begin your story with background information because (especially in this day and age of high speed and haste) you will lose readers is you didn't catch their attention on page 1.

There are so many ways of catching someone's attention:
In Medias Res.
Epic first sentence (Call me Ishmael.)
Use of language (Concerning Hobbits)
Catching a glimpse of the previous adventure.
etc.

But a good way is to start your narrative late, and introduce the backstory gradually as you go along. Or you can skim the backstory. Condensing it down to a few lines so people get the idea, see the intro of The Fellowship Of The Ring movie.


In my opinion, the easiest way to get away with infodumping is by first getting the reader to care about the characters.
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Re: How to know the right time to begin the narrative

Postby Bmat » Thu Jan 02, 2014 7:47 am

I agree. :)
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