Yes, it does seem obvious, doesn’t it? But just where do you determine the beginning? Where your main characters first meet? When your heroine wakes up? When the killer is stalking his next victim? Or when your hero is ruminating about this two-year old divorce?
As a contest judge, I see so many entries that start in the wrong place. Definitely one, sometimes two chapters of slow, plodding narrative/introspection/description that really let a good story down. Now, short of me reading your stories and saying “ah-HA! Forget all that other stuff – here’s where you should start!” you’re going to figure it out yourselves.
So where do you start? At a point of major change.
Chris Vogler (he of the awesome The Writers Journey), Michael Hauge (he of the awesome Writing Screenplays That Sell) and various other writing legends (Robert McKee included) call it The Call To Adventure. It is your character’s ‘jolt’: some event or realization that shocks them out of their Ordinary World and shakes up their life. They have to make a choice when confronted by this call – if they can ignore it and go back to their normal lives without a backwards glance, then it is not a true call.
To elaborate and get you thinking, here’s an example:
Your heroine is about to walk into an interview for a new job. She’s sat in the reception area, thinking about how desperate she is for this job, how much this money would mean to her family, to her sick father who’s just finished another round of chemo and the bills are mounting up. She wonders about her brother, who’s conveniently living overseas and unable to contribute. Her dead mother who was a saint when she was living and would hate to see her little girl now working 24/7 to support her father. She ruminates about her last few low-paid jobs, her terrible bosses and wonders what this new one would be like to work for. She’s heard he’s demanding but fair – the same can’t be said for the man’s son who seems to be content spending his time surfing and partying. Partying… she thinks briefly about last weekend, where she got to let her hair down for once, and ended up a little drunk and making out with the cute bartender in the parking lot.
This goes on for a page or two, until the office door finally opens and…. yep, the son aka cute bartender stands on the threshold.
So where would you start this story? Hands up who said “where the office door opens”?
Why? Because it’s our heroine’s Call to Adventure. She has a choice – either step up and go right on into that interview (aka Stepping Across the Threshold) or turn and leave. All that introspection, all that past stuff is past, and can be filtered in elsewhere. You also don’t need pages upon pages of it because introspection tends to slow the pace – and you want your readers to jump right into your story at Chapter 1, not get bogged down with unimportant details. A simple “She wanted this job. No, she needed it. More than she’d ever needed anything in her life.” would suffice to show the reader her desire. Then you can sprinkle in the whys later, through dialogue, deep POV and introspection.
Alternatively, if you do start with your heroine sitting there, waiting for the interview, this can be a good opportunity to get some brief backstory across, enough to whet the reader’s appetite but not too much that will have them skimming the paragraphs. The key to this is smart editing: knowing when too much is overkill and just plain boring (see example above).
It’s important to note that in category romances, the sooner you can get your hero and heroine together at the start, the better. Why? Because it will throw your reader right into the story, as well as highlighting the conflict that will carry your story along. Of course, this isn’t a rule, but you only have a short word count so you have to make every. Word. Count.