Confused about my novel's structure.

MatterSack

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Let me just start by stating that I think the foundation behind my MSF novel is extremely solid (far too solid to discard, before anyone suggests that). I've conducted years of research and design, created characters, technologies and plot events that I'm extremely proud of. This thing is my pride and joy.

However I've been crippled by indecision for months... I just can't settle on where to begin/what to include in the first act.

I have the plot itself down pat; I know exactly what happens, in what order... I just don't know what to include. I have so many potential beginnings in mind — I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've switched around beginnings at least thirty times — all of which have their own pros and cons. For example, the main six contenders that I've been juggling:

  1. Prior to enlistment.
    A beginning that shows my MC at her lowest point (recovering from a drug overdose), at a point in change, and provides unparalleled insight into the core relationship between herself and her foster dad. Prologue-esque.

  2. First day of recruit training.
    A more succinct, action-packed beginning that introduces my MC as a complete unknown. Provides more immediacy and a clear plot direction.

  3. A hybrid compromise between the two.
    My MC leaving for recruit training, and a brief conversation with her foster dad. Provides some exposition and plot momentum right off the bat, but fails to do either as well as options 1 and 2.

  4. On the eve of a deployment.
    Skipping way forward, with my MC already a trained soldier (potentially in the middle of a last-minute training exercise/evaluation). Provides an extremely energetic environment for the characters (a bit like the opening chapters of Steakley's 'Armor', or the pre-drop build-up in Cameron's 'Aliens'). Fantastic for setting up the main conflict and provides ample opportunities for section-member exposition, but will involve the simultaneous introduction of many characters and may make it harder to distinguish the MC herself.

  5. Deployed.
    I'd intended for there to be a slump after deploying. My thrill-seeking MC becomes extremely disappointed when the mundanity of the deployment sinks in, and this influences the plot later down the track.

  6. In the midst of her first combat mission.
    By far the most action-intense option, with an immediate insight into the fighting methodology and technological sophistication of my futuristic infantrymen... but this was something I'd intended to build up to. For character-development reasons (see option 5, for example), I'd wanted her first combat action to be momentous occasion.

At the moment, my preferred option is 4, followed immediately by 5 (with the snappy juxtaposition between the two accentuating the MC's disillusionment).

I'm also unsure as to whether I should include parts of her training first (which make up the vast majority of the ~50,000 words I've already written), or skip forward to when she's a trained soldier and then flashback to her earlier moments (such as option 1).

4, 5 and 6 were always intended to kick-off the second act, not the first. Recruit training would provide a lot of opportunities for exposition, with its own humour and drama, and would introduce some of the characters that end up as section-members.

What do you guys think? Thanks in advance for reading such a long post, and for any advice. :)
 
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tinkerdan

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Have you finished the whole novel or story?

If not then, to me, it seems silly to worry about this or to let it paralyze your writing. Finish writing the piece based on what you have and when you are done you might have a better idea how it should start and what work needs to be done to make that work. Trying to make that decision now is not going to save you time in the long run; but will probably waste a lot of time while you're paralyzed into inaction.
 

Hex

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It's really hard to know, without knowing what the book is really about. From what you've said, I like the sound of 4 (although it might be tricky to have a lull in excitement for the character without boring the reader too?) and 2 sounds nice as well, with lots of scope for interest.

The advantage of 1 is that you show where she's coming from, and if she's at an awful low -- maybe you could show part of the overdose? -- that's a poignant comparison for when she becomes a kickass soldier.

What I don't know -- but I think is important -- is what she would be doing in most of these versions. It's always good having your character start being active in some way.

EDIT: Also, what Tinkerdan said. Pick a start, write it, and then when you've finished the whole draft, you'll be in a stronger position to judge which start would be most effective.
 

Victoria Silverwolf

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If you want just a reader's opinion, I'd tend to vote for 4. I tend to think that 1 should definitely be revealed while the story progresses, in flashback or in other ways (dialogue, etc.) I would tend to avoid 2 and 3 entirely. The "recruit in training" theme has been done to death, both in SF and in mainstream fiction. 5, from your description, isn't very dramatic, and would be better left as a contrast to a dramatic opening section. 6 would be OK, if you were writing something with lots of flashbacks, but I think 4 would be best.
 

Denise Tanaka

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I agree with Victoria re. starting at possible-opening-spot number 4, in that you'll have the advantage of an action sequence riding the military transport vehicle on the way to a deployment and your MC can be having a brief flashback of either snippets of 1 or the good-bye foster dad dialog in 3 to fill in some character content before you get into all the shooting and explosions. A lot of people can relate to that feeling of -- here I am, wow look how far I've come from X.

I have the plot itself down pat; I know exactly what happens, in what order...

My only other advice is to consider having a bit of flexibility in your plot structure. It's good to know where your novel is going, but at the same time you never know what surprises will pop up as you dig into actually writing it. Don't close off the flow of creative juices. If you're in a scene, and something goes sideways that feels right in the moment, don't shut it off just because it doesn't fit your preconceived outline.
 

HareBrain

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I agree with 4; I think it's likely to engage the greatest number of readers.

I wouldn't include the training (except as flashback etc) unless you make it a major part of the point of the story, as important as deployment/battle, as in Full Metal Jacket or Paul Watkins's Night Over Day Over Night.
 

barrett1987

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Use flashbacks to show the drug stuff... Don't start with that or have it anywhere near the first bit. Start with action, excitement , always
 

MatterSack

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Wow! Can't believe I got so many helpful replies in such a short space of time... you guys are awesome.

It seems that most people favour option 4, which is what I've gravitated towards myself. I'm going to take tinkerdan's advice and just roll with it for now.

@Hex: I agree about character proactivity, which is one of the reasons why I had reservations about recruit training. The overdose is quite a major influence upon the MC and it really drives her motivation to change, so I may end up including it (or just referencing it as suggested by Victoria).

@Victoria: Thanks for the run-down. Training is something I'll leave out for now then (even if it means ditching most of what I've already written).

@Denise: Flashbacks definitely seem to be the best compromise, you're right, especially because they'd allow me to be as selective as I want. And I do try to be flexible; all I meant is that I have a clear idea of cause-and-effect. :)
 

Brian G Turner

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From what you've posted to Critiques, and what you've posted here, I would suggest it's worth brushing up on character development and your understanding of story structure.

I agree that they can be very hard to get your head around, but if it helps I would strongly recommend a read or re-read the following:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

I say this because you are only focused on external events - which are distant to a character - when in fact a character-driven story will have a clear emotional development arc that should define the beginning you need for you.

That means it's irrelevant which of the 6 options you choose, so long as you set up stakes, context, and the conflict that will drive this character through this story - none of which are dependent on the actual context you pick.

EDIT: I forgot to add, then you'll probably need to ensure you hav beta readers who can let you know how the character development is working for them, and point out where the weaknesses in it may be.
 

MatterSack

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I say this because you are only focused on external events - which are distant to a character - when in fact a character-driven story will have a clear emotional development arc that should define the beginning you need for you.

I respect the hell out of you man... but you're basing that assumption on a single, half-finished quasi-combat sequence of under 1500 words. The current first chapter of my novel revolves entirely around my MC, her motivations for change and her relationship with her father (see option 1 above), and contains very little action (at least 80% of it is dialogue). I think it's too far in the opposite direction actually, which is why I'm looking for something more exciting and just as characterful (like option 4, which seems to be my best bet for now).
 
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Brian G Turner

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which is why I'm looking for something more exciting and just as characterful

Don't underestimate the importance of internal conflict, though. If you look at massive selling books such as The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, you'll see that internal conflict is the big initial drive in all of them. None of them start with an action sequence.

Heck if you look at a long-term bestseller such as Dune, it's all about internal conflict over external conflict in that, too.

You keep talking about the importance of external conflict, hence why I'm making the point that perhaps you're overlooking something that may make your writing stronger.

Also, when I recommend books like Save the Cat and Wonderbook, I'm not implying that you or anyone else are stupid - I recommend them to everyone here because they are the two most succinct (IMO) guides to the technicalities of writing. And in the last crit piece I posted, I had the first quoted straight back at me. :D

They also cover the major points that most writers overlook - including many published writers. IMO every writer could benefit from going over the content in those. However, it's one thing to try and learn the theory, it's another to be able to put it into practice. That's where the betas come in.

Anyway, it's all just my personal opinion, though. And I may be wearing rose-tinted glasses. :D
 

James118

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Bah. I've missed a lot of new threads recently. My gut instinct would to go down a 'show, don't tell' route with number 3, BUT I usually find gut instinct is a euphamism for 'feels right' without knowing why. So I would have to think about it more, and like Hex said, to know what the story's really about, because so much has to reflect that core.
 

Zebra Wizard

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People probably will disagree with me, but majority of the public love that training/at school stuff, and seems to continue to do . The question is, can you make it feel different and exciting? You don't have to drag it out (to make it the entire book like in some stories) but just 2-3 chapters around that time can make it exciting since there is an obvious sense of progression.

It is true these things are done to death, but these are essentially fictional bio-pics, and bio-pics will never get old as long as the character is interesting and the story is fresh/original.

BUT! flashbacks also work well and do work well, in moderation. I personally do not like flashbacks. Though I agree they can be interesting and revealing, I often dislike how they put the current story on hold.

Maybe the question you need to ask yourself is: Is this a story about your character's life or a story about a certain event/period of time.
 

zmunkz

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I would say, start at the point in that sequence where the main character arc of the story begins... start where the change happens. I really don't think it can be judged based on your summary points, because we all don't know what the plot/arc is for this character, and so we can't judge the moment when that particular thread begins to unravel. I would look at where your character is going to end up, and walk backwards... then begin the story at the particular moment where that one vector starts.

Maybe it is during training in #1... but that might not be the decisive moment that "fate" really locked in, and there was no turning to another course. That might not happen until the implications of the battle in #6, or maybe the decision to accept deployment in #4.

I wouldn't recommend starting somewhere with the intention of exposition and worldbuilding. You really need to wait until your readers are engaged in the story (which happens through the characters) before you can give that to them and expect it to be satisfying. I would choose the start based on the characters, then work out how to including your worldbuilding and backstory from there, rather than the other way around.

So I suppose, I return the question to you in that form. gl! And happy new year.
 

Cli-Fi

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Let me just start by stating that I think the foundation behind my MSF novel is extremely solid (far too solid to discard, before anyone suggests that). I've conducted years of research and design, created characters, technologies and plot events that I'm extremely proud of. This thing is my pride and joy.

However I've been crippled by indecision for months... I just can't settle on where to begin/what to include in the first act.

I have the plot itself down pat; I know exactly what happens, in what order... I just don't know what to include. I have so many potential beginnings in mind — I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've switched around beginnings at least thirty times — all of which have their own pros and cons. For example, the main six contenders that I've been juggling:

  1. Prior to enlistment.
    A beginning that shows my MC at her lowest point (recovering from a drug overdose), at a point in change, and provides unparalleled insight into the core relationship between herself and her foster dad. Prologue-esque.

  2. First day of recruit training.
    A more succinct, action-packed beginning that introduces my MC as a complete unknown. Provides more immediacy and a clear plot direction.

  3. A hybrid compromise between the two.
    My MC leaving for recruit training, and a brief conversation with her foster dad. Provides some exposition and plot momentum right off the bat, but fails to do either as well as options 1 and 2.

  4. On the eve of a deployment.
    Skipping way forward, with my MC already a trained soldier (potentially in the middle of a last-minute training exercise/evaluation). Provides an extremely energetic environment for the characters (a bit like the opening chapters of Steakley's 'Armor', or the pre-drop build-up in Cameron's 'Aliens'). Fantastic for setting up the main conflict and provides ample opportunities for section-member exposition, but will involve the simultaneous introduction of many characters and may make it harder to distinguish the MC herself.

  5. Deployed.
    I'd intended for there to be a slump after deploying. My thrill-seeking MC becomes extremely disappointed when the mundanity of the deployment sinks in, and this influences the plot later down the track.

  6. In the midst of her first combat mission.
    By far the most action-intense option, with an immediate insight into the fighting methodology and technological sophistication of my futuristic infantrymen... but this was something I'd intended to build up to. For character-development reasons (see option 5, for example), I'd wanted her first combat action to be momentous occasion.

At the moment, my preferred option is 4, followed immediately by 5 (with the snappy juxtaposition between the two accentuating the MC's disillusionment).

I'm also unsure as to whether I should include parts of her training first (which make up the vast majority of the ~50,000 words I've already written), or skip forward to when she's a trained soldier and then flashback to her earlier moments (such as option 1).

4, 5 and 6 were always intended to kick-off the second act, not the first. Recruit training would provide a lot of opportunities for exposition, with its own humour and drama, and would introduce some of the characters that end up as section-members.

What do you guys think? Thanks in advance for reading such a long post, and for any advice. :)

Seems like you are where I was last year! I have a WIP that spans centuries long so I can definitely understand your frustration. I thought, How can I possibly begin this complex story? At least you have it easier than I did. Seems like number 4 is the best bet especially since you yourself praised it so much. How you outlined your thoughts here in your OP, is basically what I did when I first started came up with my idea, more than six years ago. Since then, it's grown massive. I wrote a bunch of character backstory and the technology/politics of the world. I then, worked hard on the conflicts between the characters and how that affects their world. I had a end and a middle for my story, but the beginning still alluded me. After all, as my novel deals with time travel. I could have literally started it anywhere! Good luck with the story.
 

pambaddeley

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Would just echo the above that the 'received wisdom' is to start at the moment when all is about to kick off for the MC.
 

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