I’m starting to draw near to the end of my blog series, A Key to a Great Story. I’ve so far talked you through how I go about approaching Character (Who), Plot (What), and World Building (Where). With those three elements in place, all of them over several blog posts, you might be quite surprised that ‘When’ is actually relatively simple and requires only one blog post.
I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks whether I did need a series of them or not, and in truth I really don’t. When to start and finish your story is only something that you as the individual can know, and the advice I have for training your instincts only needs a couple of paragraphs to explain.
I’ve rambled on a little bit, talking about what I’m going to tell you, without actually telling you very much. That isn’t lazy blog writing on my part I’ve done it on purpose. This is because ‘When’ isn’t a reference to history and what period of time you are setting your story. That’s to do with world and plot building. When to start your story refers to what will be your first scene/chapter. When to finish, is your conclusion.
I attended some screenwriting classes recently, and my teacher Gavin Williams (Twitter @gavstatic) advised me that the best way to approach the ‘when’ of your story is to arrive as late as possible and to leave as soon as you’re able. Essentially, make sure that your opening scene is punchy, gets straight into the action and plot. Your conclusion needs to tie up all the plot, but not go on longer than is needed after the main action is completed.
The reason that I refer this to as ‘when’ is because likely as not in the development of your story and plot, you will have developed a timeline of your story. You develop a skill as a writer of knowing when to start your story along this timeline and when to finish it.
I know that you might have developed a lovely complex world and a reams of back story for your characters, but you have to learn very quickly, that a lot of this information might only ever be known to you. Starting your story a couple of chapters ahead of when the main action starts just to get the backstory and details in order to introduce your characters is not only boring for the reader but also smacks of being very amateurish.
Think about Harry Potter; the series starts with the first chapter being the day after Voldemort attacks the Potters. Not the attack itself, but the aftermath because that is the most relevant point for the set up of the main character. You learn about where he is going to be staying and who with, and then only later in the book and the rest of the series do you learn details about what happens before this moment.
Also again with Harry Potter, the main story ends after the Battle of Hogwarts. It is only in the short epilogue, Pottermore, and now subsequent story stories and other works by J.K. Rowling that we learnt more about what happened to the characters afterwards. In truth we only got that because Harry Potter was so big that the fans want to know more about the world.
Everyone keeps talking about writers being the ‘next J.K. Rowling’. I very much doubt that there ever will be another J.K. Rowling. She was unique, like Tolkien in terms of how epic her story became. At no point though in the main books, did she start the story sooner than she should, nor draw out the after story more than she needed to, despite the fans probably wanting it, because if she had of done, it just wouldn’t have been as good.
Rowling is a good example to learn from that a story doesn’t have to start from the beginning of your timeline and end at the end of your timeline. Dumbledore’s childhood and past isn’t revealed until the last book, same with the truth about Snape and Lily’s friendship. Harry himself doesn’t learn the full truth about why Voldemort tried to kill him the night before the first book started until the fifth book when Dumbledore finally conceded that Harry was old enough to know, probably because not telling him had indirectly led to Harry being tricked and Sirius ending up dead.
Learning ‘When’ to start and finish your story isn’t the easiest skill to learn, and in truth is still a one I struggle with. The only further advice I can give you is to just write your story. Write it from the start and finish that you have developed; do it, finish the first draft (which is further than most people ever get), and once you have your first draft you will be able to see much better where to start and finish. It’s the approach that I use.
Just remember your first few drafts will be shoddy as I know from experience, especially as a full time worker and only a part time writer. Make sure that don’t give up on your draft, because it is easier to edit than to write. Being able to see it means you’ll be able to get a better grasp of tightening up your plot and ‘When’.
However, you need to wait several months after finishing your story before you edit. Put it aside and work on something else, and only then go back to it. Don’t jump straight into editing; you’ll find yourself too connected to the story to be able to edit efficiently if you do. Edit it, and then get someone else to read it; you’d be surprised at their feedback (if you get someone very honest to read it for you) and what they tell you isn’t needed for the plot.
Other than that, this being the hardest thing I find I do as a writer my last words for you on this topic are good luck.