In the story I’m writing, the main characters are part of a secret government unit that goes after supernatural threats to America. At least three of the group have been there awhile, but the rest of them are very new to the unit. So, my question is, should I start the story with the new members being trained? Or should I start with them being assigned to the unit and have flashbacks to the training to show how they’ve become friends, etc.?
What is your story really about?
- Is it about two friends who help each other become better people despite their vast differences, have a huge falling out, but join forces to fight a big supernatural threat anyway, and in doing so make up? If the focus of the work is on their friendship, it’s appropriate to start it when they become friends.
- Is it about an insecure person who joins the secret government agency because they have to, and in the process of joining this organization learns to overcome their insecurities, form positive relationships, and face their greatest fears to save the day from a supernatural threat? If the focus is on a character’s person growth from joining the organization, it’s appropriate to start the story when they begin training.
- Is it about how a team of agents must face a supernatural threat that is nothing like the world has ever seen, barely scraping by and saving their home city from destruction? If the focus is on a particular threat the heroes must fight, start the story when they have their first brush with that threat.
Your story might have all of these plot threads, but one of them should be paramount. That thread is called the story’s throughline, also known as the core, heart, theme, or the central/main plot. Whatever it’s called, nothing is more important than figuring it out. It tells you how your story should start, how it should end, and what exactly is holding your story together.
You can still do some double duty. Maybe your story opens when the threat appears, but at that time your character has just started training. Desperate circumstances cause them to be called into duty early, and then they meet the others on the job. But secondary plot threads in your story should support your throughline, never drag the story away from it. So if your story is about a threat, you don’t want to spend the first several scenes introducing your characters to each other before it appears; that would be neglecting your throughline. Instead it would be better to start the story when they’re already friends and let your audience learn about their friendship by watching the way they interact.
Including a flashback means abandoning the story at hand, so this technique needs a lot of justification. If you decide the story shouldn’t start when their friendship begins, but you’re tempted to add in a flashback later, ask yourself exactly what it is in that flashback that you can’t communicate in other ways. If the flashback is so important that you need it, chances are good that your story is actually about this friendship, and you should start there. Otherwise, you probably shouldn’t have a flashback at all.
I hope that helps with your decision. Happy writing!