This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.
Think of your story as a river. Just like life, just like time, it’s continually flowing by us; the lives of your characters, unless you’re going for some epic David Copperfield-type deal, began some point before your story. You can choose to step into the river at any point; as a writer, you have that freedom. And just because you stepped in somewhere in your first draft doesn’t mean that’s the best place to have stepped in.
Writers often talk about the entry point of their stories. Where do we choose to begin? With puberty? With that morning in the character’s mid-forties when the long-lost son knocks on the door? With any old regular day? The important thing to remember is that entry point, like the myriad other elements of a story, is a deliberate choice, and will set the story’s framing and timeline.
Too many student stories that I read seem to begin arbitrarily, not choosing their entry point deliberately. The stories begin with a character waking up and having a typical day. It’s only sometime in the afternoon, or maybe a week later, that we see the story again. In workshop, I try to raise the question of entry point. Why does the story have to begin now? I ask. Because the story’s beginning must feel imperative. It must feel like no other point will do. It must feel like the story had such a need to be told that at this very point, the water of the river overflowed its banks.
In your editing journal today, summarize the point at which your story begins. Then write down the question I always ask my students, riffing on the question asked at Passover tables: Why is this night not like any other night? What is so world-changing about this day that makes it the right day, the right time, to begin the story?
Look for symptoms of wrong-timeitis:
Perhaps you begin at a certain point, but then you have to spend the next page and a half quickly getting us up to speed with the traumatic event that happened to your character last year. You’ll either have to do this in flashback or backstory. But if that’s the case, why not begin with that point? Why have the most dramatic elements of your story told in a hurried aside?
Try an experiment:
Take down a few notes, imagining if the story began at a different point. What if you began forty years ago, or forty years in the future? What if you began the day before the murder instead of the day after? What would happen if you dipped into a character’s life just as she was meeting her future husband, instead of beginning with the unhappy divorce?
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