Since I finished The Witch Elm by Tana French last week, I’ve been thinking about a critical authorial decision: where to start the story. It doesn’t seem like it should be a hard decision. The story should start at the beginning. The question, though, is, where is the beginning?
On reflection, most of the books I read start in medias res. This means that they start right in the middle of the action. A catalytic event has already happened and the characters are scrabbling to put things right. Starting the story after the beginning is a winning formula because there’s no need for the author to ramp things up; there’s already narrative tension from the off. Some of the best mysteries I’ve seen, like Memento, or read actually start at the end and work their way backwards.
Literary novels, I’ve noticed tend to take their time about narrative tension, but they usually start close to whatever development launches the plot. Romance novels are similar because the meet-cute is part of the fun of the genre. Fantasy novels tend to cheat a bit. So many of them have prologues that take readers back years (or more) to provide information that probably won’t make sense until the end.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm is the only book I can think of that starts before the big catalytic event. It started so far before that event that I was initially frustrated because I wanted the story to just get on with it. It was only later that I realized what French was up to and that I needed all that background to understand the emotional depth of the rest of the story.
But that’s why this question is so important. If the novel starts too “early,” you risk wearing out your readers’ patience. Too “late,” and you risk loosing your readers completely because they won’t understand what’s going on and/or what’s at stake. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. When it goes right, we hardly notice and the story just feels right. I’m glad I read The Witch Elm. Not only was the story brilliant overall, but it got me to pause and reflect on a terrifically different job for an author.