This week's writing post is inspired by a panel from ArmadilloCon on writing mistakes we've seen other writers make. One I brought up was starting the story in the wrong place, and a question from the audience was when a story should start.
The easy answer is at the point of change -- the incident when the protagonist's life or world is changed. If you're looking at it in Hero's Journey terms, it's the "call to adventure." This is when, in traditional fantasy, the wizard shows up at the hero's home/farm/inn and assigns him to go on a quest. It's the moment when the romance heroine meets the hero. It's when the spy or soldier is assigned a secret mission. The change is the reason you're telling this story. If it didn't happen, there would be no story.
There is room to set the stage a little bit and show the hero's ordinary life before things change, but you want to be careful about this because no one wants to read three pages about someone getting up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, etc., before the story starts. You might be able to get away with a paragraph or two, or else you can weave in glimpses of what ordinary life was like after dropping a hint about the change -- there's a clear indication that something might happen, and it's a sharp contrast to the regular day the hero's having. If you're using multiple points of view, you can show the protagonist having an ordinary day while oblivious to the fact that her world is being changed. One of my favorite examples of that is the original Terminator movie, in which we see Sarah having a typical day as a put-upon diner waitress juxtaposed against scenes of a killer robot from the future killing everyone in the phone book with her name. We know her life is about to change, and we're waiting for her to find out.
One of the most common "starting in the wrong place" mistakes that still shows up in published books is the protagonist on a journey to some place where the action of the story will occur, thinking about why she's going. Unless something happens on that journey that affects the plot -- like bandits attacking or the character being kidnapped and never making it to the planned destination -- the journey itself isn't the point of change, so we don't need to see her on the carriage, plane, train, etc. Depending on the story you're telling, whether it's more about the departure and moving away or more about the arrival and going to a new place, the point of change is either the decision to leave and the departure or the arrival at the new place. That's when things start happening.
Waking up is another popular starting point, and is generally to be avoided unless the character wakes to some change -- he's in a different place from where he fell asleep, she has amnesia and doesn't know who she is or how she got where she is, there's a strange person next to her, he's been turned into a cockroach, etc. You really don't want a scene of someone just waking up, getting dressed, etc., before something happens unless you're juxtaposing that ordinariness with some kind of impending crisis the reader has seen, and even then, you want just enough to build suspense without getting boring.
Even professionals sometimes get it wrong and struggle with finding the right starting point. In the version of Star Wars that was released in theaters, we meet our hero Luke when his uncle buys the droids we've been watching escape from the Empire, and very soon afterward he finds the "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" message. That's the point when his life really changes, when he gets the call to adventure. But there was actually an earlier scene written and shot (it's in the tie-in novel, and there are stills out there) in which we first meet Luke as he notices the space battle from the opening and watches it through his binoculars, then rushes into town to tell his friends, who dismiss it as him just wanting adventure. In a sense, the battle he sees is what sets things in motion to change his life, but his life isn't actually changing yet. He hasn't yet been presented with a decision to do anything about it, whereas finding that message presents him with the dilemma of whether he should do something about it. Someone involved in that movie apparently realized somewhere along the way, after the scene was filmed, that the story started in the wrong place.
It's also possible for a story to start too late, after things have already changed, but I find that to be much rarer, especially for beginning authors, unless they've heard advice about cutting the first chapter from a book and took it to heart, and they were the rare case when they actually did start at the right point and didn't need to cut it. You know you started too late when the point of change has already occurred before the story starts.