The Different Day
By Cait Collins
In judging writing contests, I’ve read many a story that began with pages of back story and not with the action. Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin the work. Do I need a prologue? How much do I tell about my protagonist before beginning the current story? In my opinion, most stories or novels should begin with the different day.
The different day is the inciting incident that sets up the plot. For example, John may drive the same route every day. That’s not necessarily the point. Why is today special or different? Is John driving through a freak storm? Is it raining or snowing? Is there an abandoned vehicle on the side of the road, or is someone standing in the middle of the road trying to flag him down? Is he able to stop, or does he swerve to avoid the car or the pedestrian and lose control of the vehicle? Whatever track the writer takes, this is the different day. This is where the story begins.
Think about some of your favorite novels. In Gone With the Wind, the different day was Scarlet O’Hara learning that Ashley Wilkes was to announce his engagement to Melanie Hamilton during the Wilkes barbeque. The transfer of ownership of a yellow dog opened Old Yeller. James Patterson set the action for his recent Women’s Murder Club novel, 12th of Never, with the birth of Lindsey’s baby. The back story is told as the action unfolds. Even when a prologue is written, the incident that sparks the current day story must be clearly defined.
Back story has a place in the development of the plot, but the writer must decide just how much is needed to establish the setting and develop the characters. The back story may reveal the characters’ motivations; his reasons for his decisions and his justification for his actions. Just remember, the back story is just that. It is background. The story begins on the day that is different.