Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

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Callanthe
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Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#1 Post by Callanthe » Fri Mar 02, 2018 2:18 am

My current story has a protagonist with a very rich and detailed backstory, one which has significant repercussions and echoes in the story's present day events. Unfortunately, this means I can't decide how much of that backstory is worth showing without boring and/or confusing the reader too much with excessive flashbacks.

Basically, MC had happy childhood --> gained power --> got caught in a bad situation and made a Bad Mistake™ --> is now in a new town trying to make amends --> her past catches up to her and she has to navigate both old and new relationships.

Right now I have the story starting at the "is now in a new town trying to make amends", since that's effectively a "fresh start" for my poor beleaguered MC. I have a primary cast of characters who are mostly new (something about a theme of a "younger generation dealing with the sins of their elders"), while older characters start to reappear over time. Of course, there's a satisfying/happy ending where everyone manages to come together and become friends again, your usual "power of friendship" spiel.

I can see several options to tell this story in a natural way:
  • Start the story at the legit beginning, at the "happy childhood." Divide the story into two phases, Before Mistake and After Mistake. Unfortunately this means the story will end up super long, and some parts might drag? I'm trying to write a story that actually knows the definition of "concise", not something like Muv-Luv.
  • Go ahead and start the story at After Mistake, since this is comparatively more compact and still has complete character arcs. Unfortunately this means if I ever want to make her past catch up to her in a way that the reader understands, I will likely be having to use flashbacks all over the place?
  • Interweave the Before Mistake scenes with After Mistake scenes via Magic™, kind of like parallel timelines. Unfortunately, this probably runs the risk of becoming very confusing very quickly? Plus I still have to choose which backstory scenes to show and how much detail to show them with.
Does anyone have any advice about how I should approach this mess?

Thanks!

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Re: Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#2 Post by Mammon » Fri Mar 02, 2018 4:58 am

When you have a very detailed character; good. When you run into this kind of problems because of it, you've made a character too detailed though. And when that becomes the case, don't try to force it after all. I too like making characters that are more detailed than they have to be, with details and habits only hinted at and a lot that's not directly plot-relevant. But the line lies somewhere in the grey area between keeping the character completely plot-relevant (Chekhov's gun) and writing several fluff scenes just to flesh out the character, this grey area is using the fluff scenes you have to add already and adding a lot where it wouldn't be fluff.

My advice, though I don't know what exactly you're planning to do, is to scrap a lot of those pre-story scenes. Not in the way that she becomes 2D, but in that you don't write out entire scenes just for one character. First, take all those scenes you want to make, and determine whether they can become simpler. Good chance that a whole scene describing some event can be summed up just as accurately in hindsight with a few sentences. A lot of these long stories might be summarised with just the end result, the journey not mattering that much. And others you consider flashing back to might not even be needed at all. (Don't be 'How I met your Mother' :wink: ) Let's take three events (I'll make up on the spot): 1. She's perfectionistic, 2. wants everyone else to be so too, and 3. can lash out when they're not.

1. you might want to just represent as her personality. This can also be done past the mid-story, people don't need to know how it came to be or how it affected her career's start. She can comment any of these things herself without flashback, like saying that she never would've gotten past the $xx0000 mark without reading her emails every 15 minutes or something. If it's something that's still her habit, find a way to put it in after the mid-point rather than needing to go before.

2. can be repeating itself. In this new town she got an apprentice or someone eager to be mentored by this once successful lady. Being perfectionistic, she will demand the kid to be just as perfectionistic and was a slave driver to this end. Flashbacks could be seamless to this end, or even invisible. She has two apprentices who are getting more and more frustrated (but who never seem to interact), and speak up. They have to do all these menial tasks with rediculous precision, but she doesn't trust them with anything important or interesting. Then one of them storms out, and it's reveiled that this one was actually a deja vu from her previous life. As sudden redemption in this new life, she uses this knowledge to prevent the other from leaving as well. This would add a flashback arc into the story without making it feel like such, and doesn't make the conclusion too obviously predictable.

3. Let's assume that the big mistake that she made was insulting the wrong person. Our perfectionist prepared a speech and all details for some prestigeous event where she was receiving an award or something. But some much more subtle antagonist woman kept pushing her buttons. Then, on stage and in front of everyone, when the stress and neurotic desire for perfection is highest, that antagonist pressed her buttons one last time and once too many. Thus, the Bad Mistake. Instead of having to completely flashback to it, make it a bit extra juicy with some details of violence but don't tell it coherently. Just have people comment about the main event (the Fake Wig happening, or maybe even The Nipslip. Well, you already know what her real Big Mistake was, what would be the most memorable part for the common man?) but never the entire story. And the MC isn't too eager to talk about it or fully relive the event. Just little nitbits at a time.

If you absolutely must have all the scenes you envisioned and this would make the story twice as long, it might make a good sequel in that case. Make your story mid-way, and once you finish and release it you can determine whether the people want to see her story before this one. If they don't, if you already told everything about her that they want to know, good. If they do, write it as it's own project.

(Edit P.S.: I also agree with what Wildershins wrote, their suggestion could also work well)
Last edited by Mammon on Fri Mar 02, 2018 10:19 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#3 Post by Widdershins » Fri Mar 02, 2018 5:31 am

Ooh! Difficult to say, without knowing in more detail what manner of story it is, and how it plays out, tonally. Personally, given only the framework you've mapped: my instinct would be to start with the protagonist in the act of making the Bad Mistake, or just before/after it. While obviously dependent on the nature of the mistake, there are a few reasons to promote this starting point.

First, it sounds like the story you want to focus on telling is the character's redemption, right? So beginning at the very beginning-- happy childhood, lack of conflict-- carries the risk not only of a slow opening, but also frames the mistake as the story's climax, potentially turning the post-Mistake arc into a drawn-out denouement. We're programmed by linear narratives to think of climactic afterclap as rolling downhill-- if that's where the weight of your narrative lies, it runs the risk of being steamrolled. Whittling down that rich backstory to a quick introduction won't necessarily do, either, as it can downplay the importance of what the character lost, compared to what they're gaining.

Beginning post-Mistake has its own obstacles. The main character is the reader's window to the story: plunking them down in search of a fresh start, sad and alone, without a clue what it is they're trying to make amends for, immediately sets the character at a remove from the reader. It also places the story's natural focus squarely on the mystery of what happened, rather than on MC's redemption. The reveal of Big Mistake will likely turn up as the climax, even in retrospect, in this framing. Which, again, doesn't sound like the real story you're wanting to tell.

So, what's (potentially) good about starting with the protagonist behaving badly? (again, assuming it works for your particular story, which it might not)

It's an immediate narrative hook, for one. Instead of a slow burn, you're opening with action, and to go from MC making a Big Mistake to MC seeking a fresh start is a clear, unambiguous statement of intent. It's tantamount to naming the story REDEMPTION ARC: THE VISUAL NOVEL. Maybe MC is reliving the experience in flashback on the train to the new town; maybe you open with the immediate consequences for making Big Mistake, and leave the motivations behind it to be fleshed out later on (I favor this); maybe start with the day of the Big Mistake and watch things unravel. However framed, though, it gets your story going with a bang, establishes that you have a flawed, human MC, and lays the groundwork for the reader to see right from the get-go what it is the MC wants, lost, and what drives them, with minimal expository dialogue: it shows, rather than tells, and gives you a rock-solid foundation to build on with the reader.

As for how to manage the backstory: I'd cherry pick the most important, relevant pre-Mistake events, and pair them with post-Mistake events in the narrative. Presumably the mistake was traumatic for the MC, so it's likely to color their worldview, even if they've changed towns: maybe work in snippets of their history as passing inner thoughts, unvoiced in dialogue, and then flashback to important, formative experiences, either in conversation, or simply as memories triggered by current events. Deliberate mirroring between the past and present reinforces the MC's new life is inextricably linked to the old. It mimics the larger story's trajectory, too, as MC slowly reconnects the two fractured halves of their life into a mended whole.

I hope this is somewhat helpful-- and my apologies if it isn't! A film you may want to look into (trigger warning for bullying and suicide, though!) is "A Silent Voice", as it seems very similar thematically to what you're describing, and does an excellent job with pacing and unfolding a difficult narrative from the middle outward.

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Re: Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#4 Post by Callanthe » Fri Mar 02, 2018 4:56 pm

Wow, thank you both for your super in-depth responses!

Right now my story does look like a redemption? Or at least trying to fix something that broke.
For a little more detail specific to this story, I wouldn't even say that my current protagonist is a super flawed person. She's generally morally upstanding, though very timid and terrified of direct confrontation. In fact, she did what would typically be called "the right thing." It just happened that doing the right thing in that specific situation involved betraying her family and her people, all to help the Greater Good AKA others who don't know her and even fear her... And now she's flagellating herself and regretting how her decision doomed the remainder of her people. Fun fun fun!

Yeah starting at the very beginning looks like it's out of the picture, since my writing skills are most certainly not ready to juggle multiple climaxes.

Using the Big Disaster as the opening is probably what I will indeed go for! It does get awkward because the collapse of my protagonist's life wasn't instant even after that Disaster, more like sliding down a hill without being able to stop until the very bottom. I'll probably start with the most dramatic event, and then use Mammon's suggestion of weaving in juicy hints later as to the exact details. :D I will certainly keep an eye out to make sure the reveals don't eclipse the current plot climaxes, thanks for bringing up that danger! And of course I will do my best to pair pre-Mistake events with post-Mistake events.

[Oh, before I forget... I think one aspect that made me hesitant to cut out a lot of the Before Mistake era is my choice of an odd romantic sideplot. The protagonist and her love interest were very close in the Before Mistake time period, kind of like childhood friends (ok not really, but that dynamic is a close enough approximation). They effectively went through a break-up at Mistake. They do manage to reconcile and get back together by the end, but I was worried that like any childhood friend romance, the audience will be left in the dark if I don't explicitly show the past scenes. However, I think I might just have to go ahead and start writing concisely first, and then adjust on the fly.]

Thanks again for your help guys! <3

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Re: Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#5 Post by puppetbomb » Sat Mar 10, 2018 2:48 am

There's a lot of good points here, so I'll leave this list of Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling here: https://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2013/0 ... rytelling/

I think it will help you to figure out a process in trimming down/figuring out what to do with what you've got.

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Re: Best way to write a story starting from the "middle"?

#6 Post by Preseva » Sat Mar 10, 2018 3:23 pm

My advice:

Reveal only enough of her back story for the current story to make sense and nothing more. Anything beyond what the reader absolutely needs to know is going to feel excessive and irrelevant, which translates to tedious. Even if it doesn't make it into the game, extra back story is always a good thing, because you will know it's there, and that will come out in subtle ways that will reflect the decisions she makes, her reactions to situations, and in general make her a fully fleshed out, well rounded character. When you know the character that well, it means she's going to be easier to write.

Never start a story at the beginning. It's conflict, tension, and mystery that makes a reader want to turn the page. The characters have to want something and be actively in search of it. A beginning doesn't have any of those things. The exposition needed to understand what is going on and to establish the character can be easily enough revealed in the first few pages with a few simple references, through character action, and so on. Look into the concept of "in media res."

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