Start a story when something is happening. This is what I have told creative writing students in the past. Picture a woman sitting in a chair in a beautifully furnished room. The woman is unhappy you can tell because she’s wringing her hands. So far so good.
Depending on the skill of the writer this scene could be beautifully described. It could end up as a vibrant and evocative piece where the decor could reflect or contrast with the obvious feeling of unease inside the woman.
But it would not be a story until something happens.
The phone rings. The woman is startled. She goes across to it and picks it up nervously. A voice on the other end says, “I have your daughter. She is still alive and will stay that way as long as you don’t go to the police.”
Now we have a story. In a few pages we have a crime, a distraught mother, knowledge that no police are involved. We have a dilemma and the promise of intrigue and drama to come.
But in order to explain how this state of affairs came about we have to travel back in time. If you start with something dramatic you have to explain to the reader – somehow – how this situation arose. Readers know this. They expect a whole range of storytelling techniques when they open the pages of a book and they know they’ll probably do some time travelling.
There are a number of ways of doing this. Flashbacks, of course and then feeding the ‘backstory’ into the narrative via the thoughts and memories of the characters. Dialogue is also a good way; one character telling another about something that happened in the past. All these are techniques to fill in the gaps so that the present day story can move on.
Another way is to set part of the novel in the past. The novel I’m working on at the moment which is called MOTH GIRLS starts when a house is being demolished. Five years before this house was the scene of the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. The first part of the novel takes place in the weeks after the house was demolished and is seen through the eyes of a girl who was friends with those that have gone missing. Part two of the novel takes place five years earlier and is told from another character’s point of view. This means that the novel will jump forward again.
Teenage readers have no problem with this. These techniques are used in movies and television drama to great effect. Keep my fingers crossed that I can use them to great effect as well.