Writing advice. There's so much of it out there – most of it well-intended – but how much of it should you heed, as a writer yourself?
In reading Dhonielle Clayton’s novel The Belles, I was struck by the fact that the poor beginning to an otherwise enjoyable novel (so far: I’m about half-way through, and was 1/3 through when I first wrote and then accidentally deleted this blog post I’m trying to conjure back up) appears to have been affected by too-closely following an oft-heard piece of writing advice.
“Start when the story begins.”
Have you heard that one before? That, or something like it? When trying to find the place to start your novel, drop all the boring stuff of the character just living their life, and start when things actually begin to change for that character.
Makes sense, right? No one wants to read a book that begins with chapter upon chapter of mundane tasks and routine interactions. Skip ahead to the part where the story happens!
But that brings up a problem: for the protagonist’s new situation to have any impact, we must first have a sense of where he or she came from. We can’t empathize with the character being overwhelmed or challenged by change, without first seeing the status quo which is being changed.
So what was that about The Belles? Let me explain, with minimal spoilers all from the first couple of chapters.
Camille is a “Belle”, and is on her way to the debut where she and her friends will take up their new positions after lifelong training – and nothing will ever be the same again.
But, with the character enclosed in a private chamber, the novel takes the opportunity to explain the world, the rules, and the history of the character. It takes several (short) chapters just to get us to (and through) this brief display Camille must put on at her debut.
Why such a lengthy process for such a short event? Because of all the backstory which must be communicated. For it is, of course, very necessary to know why Camille is here and what she has been through. And since the book is starting where the story begins, this must all be revealed through info dumps.
Worse than that, however, is Camille’s relationship with a fellow Belle named Amber. The text drills into us how fond the two are of each other – all while showing through action and dialogue that the two are incredibly hostile to one another.
In between insults or antagonism, the prose (inside Camille’s head) stresses their closeness. But that’s not what we see. What the reader experiences is the two characters being hostile and nasty.
This is not merely “show vs tell” – this is “show” in direct opposition to “tell”. But because of the nature of the event and the competition taking place, this love between the characters cannot be portrayed in the way that the narration would have us accept is true.
So what could have been done instead? Well, obviously, taking us back and showing us the training these girls went through, the hardships they endured together on the way to this moment, the closeness they shared, would have allowed us to experience both the world which the Belles are leaving, as well as the real love between them.
But the story is not about their training. Should Clayton have wasted book space giving us a sense of all of this instead of cutting to the actual story she is intending to convey? It’s a tricky thing. Was she (or her editor) wrong in taking the advice to “start where the story begins” so strongly to heart?
If the writer begins at the change in environment or status, the reader loses out on much needed context for this transition. On the other hand, if the writer begins before this, valuable storytelling time is taken up conveying things which have nothing to do with the location, theme, or even characters, of the main storyline.
So what is the solution? Well, as with anything it is not that easy. But the book The Belles puts me in mind of another “Belle”, so let us look briefly at the Disney animated classic movie Beauty & the Beast.
If the animators took that old writing advice literally, the movie would begin with Belle’s father having gone missing, and her hunt for him which brings her to the house of the Beast. After all, this is where the story begins, is it not? This is where the change in her environment, her status, her wellbeing, all begins to unfold?
Well, sure, but what would we feel about any of it if we did not first see Belle’s mundane life and the happiness she experiences living in her father’s house? None of what she endures or is transformed by would mean anything without first seeing where she comes from and what she desires.
Which is why (after a storybook prologue) the movie actually begins in that little village with Belle singing a classic “I want” song about how she desires “much more than this provincial life”. She is happy with her father, and the friendly townspeople, but a surface pleasantness is not enough to satisfy Belle.
She wants something deeper.
Contrasted with this, we see Gaston who declares that Belle’s surface beauty has established her as “the best” girl in the village. To him, outward appearance and superficial pleasantness are all which is important. This puts him in direct conflict not only with Belle personally, but with her worldview.
And more to the point, it is this very conflict around which the entire movie will pivot. Not only involving Gaston, but thematically throughout the whole story. That what lies beneath the surface – even if it is not superficially pleasant – may be the most valuable and attractive thing of them all.
So even before Belle’s change in circumstances, her conflict has already begun. The theme, the idea which the story is built around and will explore in various ways, is introduced and made central. Because that is the story – that, not the plot which will help in bringing it to life.
It is not the plot which must begin at the start of your book, film, play or epic interpretive dance. It is the story.
So even as you introduce the status quo which you (the writer) are about to upend dramatically, the theme and conflict which this story is built around must be front and center, driving everything in the narrative.
How to go about doing this? Beats me, guv. I just work here.