My second draft manuscript has been in the breathing phase for two months now, while I’ve been mulling over the feedback I received from my critiquer. When she told me my story started in the wrong place – despite having prepared myself to hear this – I was crestfallen and frustrated, mostly because I had already deleted the first three chapters and reworked their content into the story. Realizing that the first 18K words of your precious novel could in fact be superfluous is hard to swallow, and more so if you think you have actually followed the ‘no back-story’ and the ‘start in the action’ rules.
With my writing confidence somewhat bruised, I had to embark on a self-imposed reading exploration to find out where my story should actually start. My critiquer and my beta-readers indicated ‘somewhere around chapter six or seven’ as they felt this was where the story got really interesting. Had I really filled the first six chapters with banal waffle so boring that it rendered the first fifth of my novel redundant? For two weeks, all I could think about was that I had worked on 18K words that were now useless to my overall 100K words. But then this is why there are third and fourth drafts, right?
Lagos Egri’s ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ has now spent about six weeks full-time by my side. I needed to fully understand conflict in all its power and how it drives a story forward. When I reached the chapter titled ‘Point of Attack’, my eyes and ears shot open. Egri states that ‘the curtain rises when at least one character has reached a turning point in his life.‘ At the end of the chapter Egri states that ‘It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning.’
With these two notes in mind, I had to think about all my main character’s conflicts that served my novel’s premise and decide which ones were actual ‘turning points’ in my protagonist’s life. There were lots of conflicts, but I had to go through the process of pin-pointing which events where so forceful that they revealed strong, true character traits witnessed only when a person faces a life changing conflict situation. Would it be when she makes a hard decision about a job, when she decides to accept less than stellar behavior from a loved one or when she makes a decision so pivotal that the outcome of the decision will determine the direction of her life, and also the novel story? Identify this conflict situation and this is where you start your story.
American Science Fiction author, Nancy Ann Dibble advises to ‘Make everybody fall out of the plane first, and then explain who they were and why they were in the plane to begin with.’ Back story is okay once the action is set up and being played out. Egri also states that ‘In conflict we are forced to reveal ourselves‘ and it is this character revealing conflict that will keep readers interested and move your story along for the get-go.
I’m still re-structuring and editing and not quite there yet but in simplest terms it looks like I am taking the first half of my novel and flipping the content on its head. Maybe I’ll get it right by the fourth draft!
Main image via here