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In my story the MC joins this pseudo-militia. The process for every new person is to sign up, go to training, and then be sorted into teams and wait to be assigned a mission.

I have started writing when she is on the way to headquarters to be assigned to a team, but I feel like I need to start earlier to properly set up her character, show her powers, and why she wants to join so bad.

The problem is that the training portion is relatively unimportant. She won’t encounter most of them again. The people on her team and her job will be the most important thing. I feel that if I start during her training (or before)I will be introducing characters and a setting that aren’t a big part of the story.

What should I do?

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    You could do it through flashbacks. – dorijan5484 Oct 6 '20 at 14:46
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    You control the world, so have a conversation between the MC and a teammate about how they had met before (maybe the MC doesn't even remember) and how the person didn't think the MC was the fighting type. That segways into a discussion of the MC's motives. – DWKraus Oct 6 '20 at 21:13
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    I was thinking about that, but I heard that you shouldn’t use those in the first few chapters. – Zariya Stewart Oct 6 '20 at 22:57
  • Try having a look at this - cryptic title, but fairly similar question. – Spencer Barnes Oct 7 '20 at 15:08
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    if the characters in the training don't make a difference to the growth of the character or advancing the plot, then are they useful to include at all? See Ender's Game for characters during training that don't show up later but directly influence character growth. See also the concept of "Chekov's Gun" - don't introduce something that isn't going to be used in a meaningful way – NKCampbell Oct 7 '20 at 19:12

11 Answers 11

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You could add a prologue that tells the backstory of what made her decide to join the militia, then skip directly to the story itself where she's already part of the group.

Alternatively, you could start in media res and add flashbacks to explain the backstory.

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  • Lucas wanted Star Wars to reflect the feeling of going to a movie in the old days where there were "serials" (brief shorts that were part of an ongoing story) and if you hadn't been there for the start, you had to just kind of figure out what was going on. It was very effective, and it can work for you as well. – msouth Oct 7 '20 at 19:09
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    @msouth And of course when they did go back and make those earlier movies years later, they were terrible. Sometimes it's better to just start in the middle and leave it alone... – Darrel Hoffman Oct 8 '20 at 18:32
  • True, @DarrelHoffman -- didn't bring that up because I was trying to be encouraging :). It is possible to do prequels well. Lucas' problem is that he comes up with excellent stories but other people do a much better job of telling them. But, back on topic--it is often the case that untold backstory (deep backstory in the author's head but not written or explained) makes a character much more real-seeming. LOTR one of the best examples. – msouth Oct 8 '20 at 20:15
  • I think it's always better to start in the middle. – theonlygusti Oct 8 '20 at 21:48
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It's good that you're starting with the story! Getting straight into the action is my favourite kind of storytelling (and I believe that's the general opinion nowadays?)

I've seen this approach taken often in your situation:

  1. Slowly reveal her backstory through hints and implications in the rest of her and other people's actions and interactions
  2. You can also (after a little bit of immersion in the main story) make it explicity, by having her recall her initial motivations.

1 can be achieved by (for example) mentioning her habits alongside the origins of her habits (or without the origin, to be mysterious and leave the deduction up to the reader), or making other people who knew her from before run away from her when they see her waving to them, or talk to her referencing some childish nickname.

You can do 2 by simply having her talk about her history with someone she's come to trust. That's quite common and (for me) touching, maybe others find it cliché and cheesy. You could also easily internally monologue it.

I personally find method 1 way more exciting. Don't ever feel that you have to share the backstory with the audience. It's very important for you as the writer, but may be boring to explicate to them — and completely draw them out of and put them off the story you want to tell. As long as you keep their origin in mind yourself, the audience will be able to see the kind of person they are, and perhaps infer their backstory, just through how they and others behave in the main story, and this is far more gripping, and a far more fun experience (at least for me).

Of course, if you are dead set on explicitly explaining parts of their backstory to the audience (first ask yourself why?), then aim for a clever balance of 1 and 2. 2 is not itself bad (I do think however that prologues are bad!), it's fine to state things about backstory, but be careful not to get too sucked up into it, dedicating too many words for it, it can really slow down and damage immersion if overdone.

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    +1 for revealing backstory through other interactions. I'm personally not a big fan of flashbacks, but you can do a lot of character exposition through other people's reaction. Either explicitly "Wow - you did X, you never managed that when we were at the academy, probably because you were partying instead of training" or more implicitly by character reaction; is someone avoiding you but chummy with everyone else? Maybe they're willing to do a lot for you because you helped them out in the past. – David258 Oct 8 '20 at 14:04
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The famous American satirist and science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut advocated starting your story "as close to the end as possible." We also live in an era where most people don't have much patience for slow starts, so if your instinct is to skip the prologue, I think it's a good one.

I've been working a lot lately with Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory" (most of what you know about a story you write should remain off the page) and I've found that you really never have to shoehorn backstory into a narrative. The things you know about the characters and settings will naturally find their way into what you write, even if indirectly. They will make your story richer and more three-dimensional. Forcing them into a prologue, or even an unneeded flashback, is like a magician performing a magnificent illusion, and then explaining in excruciating detail exactly how it was performed.

That's not to say prologues and flashbacks can't work, and aren't valuable tools in a writer's toolbox. But you should never shove one in just to have it.

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This is a really good question!

Many stories have gone through phases where they start at different times or need to be reworked. Something that might work for you is writing everything before the story "starts" and then figuring out when it needs to start. For example, my character could find her true love at a bar, but the events leading up to her going to the bar are also helpful to know fro the reader and they create an enticing storyline.

The main thing to figure out is if the reader can understand what's happening. If they can't, then you can either write more detailed descriptions of what's happening (if you don't want your story to start earlier) or you can simply start your story earlier.

If you can't decide between these two options, there is a third option out there. you can keep the story as-is at the beginning, and when you find a good place to stop (a dramatic stop maybe) you can jump back in the story when it all began. this hooks your reader in the story as well as giving your reader a good overview of the history they need to know.

Let me know in the comments if this was confusing, I can try to clarify.

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  • Ref the third option, I was playing an old video game a while back that did this quite effectively; there's an action/fight section involving a plane crash, and at the end the characters meet an ally and ask what he's been up to and he says 'didn't you see the explosions as you flew over?' and it cuts to an hour earlier where the spy's task is to sabotage some guns. You could try that sort of concept, cutting from one character to another? – Spencer Barnes Oct 7 '20 at 15:05
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    @SpencerBarnes Yes, that's exactly what I meant! Thanks for elaborating :) – AnnWriter19 Oct 7 '20 at 15:27
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You have several options:

  • Rewrite the training so that it links back to something important.

  • Start even later, show important things in flashbacks, or rewrite it so the important things are explored in the present.

  • Start earlier and gloss over the unimportant parts like the training.

  • and more...

The main point is, all of these can work.

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I was also about to quote Vonnegut, but someone else beat me to it. I think you're making the right choice at your current starting position.

You, the author, think that the training is boring and unnecessary. A reader will be even more likely to be uninterested because they don't even know or like the character yet. I'd argue that it's much more compelling to see a character use their powers in a time of need rather than in a classroom setting. Learning about the monarchy is more interesting in a court party than in a book.

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It depends, but as a rule of thumb, starting later, often in media res, is a good option.

This is an area where there are different opinions so it is hard to say that any path you choose is either right or wrong. It also varies somewhat on the type of story you intend to tell. A story meant to focus on action may have a different idea of where it should begin then one focusing on character development or atmosphere even if focused on fundamentally the same plot.

With that said, my opinion is that you should start as late in the action as you feel like you can while still telling the story you want to tell. Of course, you shouldn't take my word for it, but several serious literary theorists have advocated it including Horace in the Ars Poetica where it was referred to as starting "into the middle of things" and is often referred to as "in media res". Creators including George Lucas have made good use of the technique. The first Star Wars movie famously started in the middle of a fight that started off screen (although he did provide a very brief crawler to set the stage). Poe's Tell-tale Heart starts in media res. Standing on the shoulders of these greats, I think many works would be well served by starting later in the action.

If starting later causes some information to be omitted, that can be corrected later, after the reader is already invested. Depending on the importance of the scene in question it can be given either a full on flashback or merely referenced by some character, perhaps even just in the character's thoughts, to give the reader the necessary background information.

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Cut to the chase! This is excellent advice whether making a movie, composing a song or writing a story.

Let your audience discover the characters, not be spoon-fed their back stories.

Tell us WHY this story needed to be told as quickly as possible.

Everyone is giving this advice. And it's good advice. But 'Oliver Twist' is a good story too. Its subtitle is 'The Parish Boy's Progress'. It starts at the beginning, quite literally. (As does the Bible.)

Do what works for your story.

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As a twenty-year military veteran, I find it very hard to believe that your character's time in boot camp will be uneventful, either from the viewpoint of the plot or from the viewpoint of the character's development.

Certainly the major events of the story will not take place in boot camp, but that period of military service is when a recruit's need to change is rubbed into his face, and not always metaphorically, and the process by which that change begins is imposed on them. You don't have to rehash Starship Troopers, but the time in boot camp is important to people who were really there, and only combat has a greater impact on a serviceman's character.

Also, it is common for military members to deal with people they met in boot camp, much later in their careers, although during my own time, although during the twenty years that followed boot camp, I only met one of the people that I had known during boot camp, and we spoke for about a minute before parting ways and I never saw him again. The upshot here is that characters introduced in boot camp can still have a role later in the tale.

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As a reader, I strong dislike prologues. They rarely tell me anything that hinting at backstory doesn't tell me.

As a writer, I write a lot of backstory. Most of this is never put into my story.

Currently, I'm writing an urban fantasy. Our protagonist is a skilled martial artist. 1) He studied martial arts for many years. 2) He is an active member of the local chapter of a medievalist society. 3) He also seems to be a berserk. He is also living with his two girlfriends (a recent change in his life).

I spent time trying to figure out how to shoehorn all this into the very beginning of the story, and nothing was working until I just dropped him into the middle of a fight. This brings him to the attention of the protagonist which will result in the inciting incident.

The back story is now naturally unfolding, with very small bits dropped to the reader every now and then.

I have a history of the characters, in a general way, from the time before they were born (yes, the three main characters mothers knew each other). Most of this history will never be made public. A small amount might be. However, most of it really doesn't matter to the story, and shouldn't take any more space than it needs to to add some flavor.

For example, Mariko's mother is a Kitsune; this is somewhat important to the story. On the other hand, why her mother stays with her father is somewhat of a mystery. That she was the one that instigated the thruple of the three main characters is unknown to the characters and the readers (Mariko might suspect something, but if so she hasn't told anybody else). And unless I find a good reason, it will remain that way. If readers ask for more backstory, then I can write some of it in a short story. Think of that as job security. :)

The way I'm doing this is one way to handle this. I'm doing it this way because I feel the story I'm telling is more important than the history of the characters.

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I once tried to read a book. It started with one page of fairly exciting prolog. Then it had thirty pages of boring flashback on the nature and consequences of libel in a newspaper. The whole thing could probably have been a few paragraphs. At this point, I decided the book was unreadable, and probably unpublishable! You've probably heard of it: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Lots of people have recommended flashbacks. I would like to recommend multiple short flashbacks, relevant to the story as it progresses.

It might also help if there is a substory to the flashbacks. For instance, the basic training episodes all relate to or involve a friend/fellow trainee that MC joined with and then in a late flashback of late basic training, said friend dies. Which then might explain a some of MC's actions to date.

Finally, I would recommend you keep track of MC's history, including the flashbacks. It is not good to change it in later novels as if you've forgotten things. (I'm currently reading a series where the main character comments around book 7 or 8 on finding a basement unusual, as if she had never had one. In book 1, she lived in an apartment townhouse that included a laundry room in the basement. Major action took place in the neighbor's basement.)

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