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I've just recently finished building the setting and plot of a fantasy coming-of-age story. I'm happy with the way it turned out; the character arcs feel compelling and the setting supports the plot nicely. I've got everything planned out — all the different subplots have been tied up in nice, neat packages — but I have no idea where to start.

Being a coming-of-age story, there needs to be a lot of character development. Being a fantasy, it's going to take a while to expose the plot. The main arc isn't quite enough to fill an entire book, so there's some room left over to use for exposition, but I don't know how much of it I should use.

The timeline goes something like this:

  • Yr 10: Main character meets very important side character.
  • Yr 10.5: Main character and side character escape an attack on their home town.
  • Yr 10.5-16: Main character and side character scrape out a living in another town.
  • Yr 15: Main character and side character, tired of the town and its prejudice, decide to leave and live as nomads.
  • Yr 15-16.5: Main character and side character travel from town to town, living mostly off the land and from less-than-legal ways of acquiring goods.
  • Yr 16.5: Main character and side character hear whispers of the people who attacked their town and go off to investigate.
  • Main story arc begins.

The question: How early should I start? The earlier ones have the benefit of more in-depth setting and character development, but I'm worried they won't have enough action to hold the reader until the main plot. Likewise, the later ones feel like they throw the reader into the story far too quickly.

At this point, I really have no idea how early in the story I should start. There's downsides to starting early, but there's also downsides to starting late, and without a good idea of how long the main arc will be I really have no idea how to decide.

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Edit: As some of the comments pointed out, I forgot to mention the length of the story. While I haven't ironed out that detail yet — it's partially based on the point at which I end up starting — it's certainly not a short story, but it's not a multi-book series, either. The best comparison I can make is slightly longer than The Hobbit, but it remains to be seen just how much longer it will be.

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    Are you writing a short story or novel? Flash fiction? One of those epic multi-book series people seem to like writing these days? The length of your piece will affect your starting point. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 17 '16 at 13:04
  • @KenMohnkern valid point, but it would be helpful to expand a bit and make a suggestion or two? And seven bulletpoints for the exposition only certainly hints at a more or less epic novel :-) – Lew Sep 17 '16 at 16:24
  • Yes, @Lew, but a short-story writer might write all those sections in order for the writer to learn more about the characters and their relationships, and write the main story arc to reflect all that. Then in revision 10-16.5 might even be dropped completely. My point (and I do have one) is that we can imagine this piece being anything from short to epic. And the best starting point is dependent on that. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 17 '16 at 16:39
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A story should start with the revelation of the desire that will drive the main character. In the case of an exile story, the desire is usually either revenge or to return home (which may mean to find a new home). To establish revenge as the desire, you start by establishing the character's love for those for whom revenge is sought. To establish a desire to return home, you start by establishing the character's love for that home. Then you deprive them of those people or that home.

LOTR begins by establishing Frodo and Sam's love of the Shire, which represents the way of life that they are seeking to preserve. (Which is why the story ends with the scouring of Shire, not the crowning of the King.)

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a escape story, and so it begins by establishing the place that must be escaped from (Privet Lane).

Desire and its frustration are the root of all stories, you begin by establishing the desire and the things that frustrate that desire. Without those things, the timeline you have described is mere travelogue.

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Somebody said once that the right question bears half of the answer within.

Whether you have your story already written or not, it is clearly structured and well thought through. Your characters seemed to be defined and developed, and I have little doubt that your plot is solid. I think that your question is not how early to start your narrative, but how to deliver your story in a most efficient way, keeping the reader engaged and motivated to continue reading.

There is an infinite number of possibilities, and they all depend upon your style and taste, the genre of your story, the length of it—as @KenMohnkern mentioned—and the audience you are targeting. If you see your book as a hard action thriller, do not be afraid to start with a scene where your main character and his sidekick are being chased by the authorities because a random thug they teamed up with for this particular heist, sold them up to save his hide, but not before saying something about their hometown which makes them want to go there and see what is going on. You can then bring all the backstory piece by piece as a series of flashbacks between the action scenes.

If you are aiming at a classic epic fantasy, do not be afraid to expand upon the exposition—epic fantasy readers do enjoy throughly built worlds and beautifully presented settings—but just keep building tension scene by scene.

The choice it yours and only yours, and no one can really tell you what words to type and in what order. For me, you answered you own question when you said

Main story arc begins

But it is just me :-) Best of luck.

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Only you know where your story begins. I'll ask you a few questions to help you figure out what you already know, deep inside:

  1. What is, for you, the seed of that story? The initial core idea from which you built all of it? Sometimes it is a scene. Could that be the beginning?

  2. What is the logline? The premise? The moral? The theme? The message? The change? The crisis or climax? Can you foreshadow the essence of rthe story in its first sentence?

  3. What is the plot or the main character's arc? Were does the protagonist stand at the beginning (in terms of life situation and personality development)? Can you create a scene that shows this outset to the reader?

Look at the beginnings of novels. A Google search for something like "novel first sentence" turns up many lists with famous examples. Also go to Amazon.com and look at beginnings of novels in your genre using Amazon's "Look inside" function. Go through these beginnings of famous and genre novels and try to understand how they work. Looking at them with the questions above in mind will give you many ideas for first sentences for your novel, and the rest will flow from there.

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When to start a story?

When the main character realizes s/he has a problem. Stories are about one or more problems confronting the main character, and how s/he goes about solving it/them.

You don't want to start the story with "background," because without the problem, the story is "trivial." Instead, use "flashback" scenes to depict the necessary background.

So if the problem starts in say, Year 5, start it the story there. And use "flashback" to cover years 1-4.

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