One result of the expanded role for Lady Temmere in “Relvan’s Rescue” was my decision to begin the story a few scenes “later” than where I originally started it. Where to start your fantasy fiction story is both an important and difficult decision to make. You only get one chance to hook the reader, to make the great first impression. If the opening scene takes place too early, you risk boring the reader. If it takes place too late, the reader may get confused. The question is, what is “too early” or “too late?”
The short answer is “as close to the action as possible.” Don’t spend the first chapters of your fantasy fiction novel cataloging the 1000-year history of your world. Or the prologue, either. That should really be woven into the story, revealed to the reader at relevant points in the plot, drawing them deeper into the rich tapestry you’ve crafted.
Novel writers get away with bending this rule now and again, but the good ones jump right into the thick of things starting at page one, even if that point is way back in history. It’s still directly related to the plot.
Short stories don’t enjoy the same luxury. Arbitrary word limits require fantasy fiction writers to keep a tight focus. Pages of “stage setting” aren’t necessary to establish a character’s motivations or their stakes in conflict. They bloat the manuscript and result in a rushed pace that leaves the reader unsatisfied.
This is an area where I think fantasy fiction novelists could learn from short story writers. It is excessive to spend multiple chapters pounding into the minds of readers the immaturity of the scullery boy who spends his time shirking his duties to fantasize about being a knight, or how much the dying king was beloved by his people in order to contrast the ineptitude/corruption of his heir. A concise scene or two is all it takes in the beginning. There will be plenty of room to develop the characters as the story progresses.
How do you decide where to start your story? Do you mind if the author takes her time getting the ball rolling, or do you prefer having a clear sense of conflict right from the start?