“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
Graham Greene, The end of the Affair, 1951
Hmm. This is one of those statements which has an underlying truth that doesn’t translate terribly well into what humans want.
And actually that’s the business we’re in: the providing what humans (a category I assume a reasonable number of my readers fall into) want. We can put up with messy beginnings but most of us dream of tidy (and probably happy) endings. Of course: there is a lot of perspective in this – one man’s happy ending is another woman’s utter tragedy. See the recent US elections for a case in point.
I suppose you might say books like Neville Shute’s ON THE BEACH or Margaret Atwood’s HANDMAIDEN’S TALE have endings – there is no more human story anyway, and watching (or reading about) geographical erosion gets rather dull after a few eons. In most other books of course the story goes on, even if the main protagonists are dead, or married. (no they’re not actually quite the same. And even happily ever after is usually fraught at times. Trust me on this, I have experience to speak from.)
Now as I am not a fan of either of the above books (which yes, I have read, so I’m not indulging in the puppy kickers favorite pastime of hating that which they’ve never so much as read a page of, let alone the an entire book) I suppose I am a fan of knowing story goes on, or at least believing it can go on, but like most readers (judging by sales) I like a defined ‘end’. I’m one of the ones who prefers it to hopeful if not outright happy, and my comfort-books, return to again-and-again books, buy the author blurb-unread books, are all unashamedly ‘happily ever after’ in nature. I’m sure according to the literati this makes me a mouth-breathing peasant in need of my betters educating me for my own good or something. Good luck trying to convince me to change those tastes. And – as most writers need readers to like their work, to buy it, and the evidence is strong that I’m with the overwhelming majority here, well I’m going to stick with my writing and reading tastes in endings.
Which rather leaves one with beginnings to think about. And this what I consider Graham Greene to be accurate for the story writer who wants to be popular, as well as reflecting life. Because even merely from the protagonists points of view, unless they’re newborn… they are a continuation of a story, and probably one that isn’t in the book.
Everything comes from something. Actions have consequences, and usually cause reactions. It’s like kids in the ‘who-did-what-to-who-first’ – you’d go back to the initial unicellular algae tracking that one. You can damp these down or grow them: just as in real life they’re basis – added to genetics and chance as to why any character plausibly does anything. That plausibility is why some stories have that feel of veracity even though the setup may be as unlikely as hell. That’s a major factor in the suspension of disbelief we need to carry a piece of fiction.
Which means that the reader and the author need to know the story that came before. And because you can’t start a book with a long, tedious pre-story (or not without losing most readers, that ACTUALLY means that the story really begins in the middle somewhere. At a good point, that enables the writer to capture the reader’s attention… but the writer still has to back-fill that story towards at least where it starts for that character. Now: you may believe in doing it like me (on a need to know basis only) or like Mercedes Lackey (with a lot more). She sells more than I do, so perhaps this works better for more people – YMMV BUT the key thing is to do this either is the author needs to have a very clear idea of that back-story.
Most people take short cuts: For some writers that character is back-built using themselves (or those they know well) as models. This can be very effective… for one book (and possibly sequels), at least. The other common and partially successful short cut is the stereotype. Look, these have their roots in reality –and with small tweaks to give them individuality can work quite well. Of course the current fashion in a PC cast of stereotypes suffers from the fact that the stereotypes are derived largely from wishful thinking not reality – which besides the tedious predictability makes suspending belief hard (unless you desperately wish to engage in the same wishful thinking. That happens too – and not just with PC prescribed character. Let’s face it a lot of romance, and a fair bit of ordinary-guy-comes-good adventure is just that. But then you’re selling to that market).
Then there is long cut – the opposite of the short cuts but very good for reader immersion – and that is the Tolkien approach of developing a back-history which hopefully you don’t publish! This has two effects – it makes the character consistent and plausible, and secondly almost always provides motive.
Ann, who has lived a pampered existence, been to an Ivy League college, married money, and been allowed and encouraged to ‘follow her dreams’ with lots of contacts in the right places… Linda is the hard-scrabble battler who grew up in poverty fighting every inch of the way for the ground she’s made, with no contacts, no opportunity or time to follow her dreams, but lots of grind in deathly-dull hard physical jobs… well put them in the place at the start of your story. Both wanting to get a book published. Now, they’re the same sex (which we’re told makes people near identical in their thoughts and tastes – according to modern politics anyway), the same skin color, the same sexual orientation. They possibly even look alike… Does ANYONE think they’ll follow the same course? Of course they won’t. But as the writer, you have to feed that, unobtrusively, to your reader. And of course it’s hardest at the point you want to start your story – which is not by going slowly, building up the backstory. You’re trying to do two things, fast.
Now once again, YMMV, but this IS the time for ‘dog-whistles’ – clear quick pointers to that back-story. You can get nuanced and fill in the details later. Both women meet famous editor at a conference…
Linda kept her arms folded, covering her hands. Make-up did fine on your face but could not hide the callouses on her hands. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, trying to keep the hope out of her voice.
“Octavia has told me all about you,” gushed Ann. “When I was at Clarion…”
And we build their back-story in our heads.
It exists, even if not in the book.