For those of you who follow my blog, you know that my writing mentor, Chris Votey, is someone who inspires and encourages me to go beyond what I already know in the world of literary writing. This month, he’s assigned me to read one of his articles on a literary term and respond to it. He chose for me Ab Ovo, a term I had never heard before, much less considered writing on. To be honest, most of the literary theory I know comes from Tumblr’s various teardowns and theory discussions on various manga, anime and shows.
I found this particular literary term to be quite rudimentary. In other words, it’s a word I should have already known, but didn’t KNOW it was tied to something. What Ab Ovo is, is simply this: A story that starts at the beginning. It’s a latin term that means ‘In Egg’, or at the beginning.
Now, you’re most likely considering the fact that all stories start at the beginning. But no, not all do. In the article, he explains stories like Star Wars: A New Hope and Shaun of the Dead are both In Media Res (or Starting in the Middle). So I had to go out of my way to find stories that start Ab Ovo. I started off by thinking of as many stories as I knew, anime, manga, books I’d read, various other things as well, and I found a lot of them are In Media Res. In fact, it got me to thinking about how all of these stories start.
It began to get a bit frustrating after a while, and when I finally found one that actually ISN’T In Media Res, I almost laughed. One of the few Ab Ovo stories I found was actually a story we all know and love. Thumbelina. The story starts with the BIRTH of our main character, the most important character, and goes from there. There is no previous conflict, other than the old woman wanting a child, and that’s solved with Thumbelina’s arrival.
Most fairy tales start this way too. Sleeping Beauty starts with the birth of the princess. Snow white, the original tales anyway, start with the Queen wishing for a baby, and spilling two drops of blood on her sewing. Pinocchio starts with Gepetto wishing for a child on the blue star, and getting a moving puppet instead.
The moral of the story here is, I suppose, if you want to give your story a fairy-tale like quality, have it start Ab Ovo.
Now, the original article that Chris wrote mentioned that it was also possible for the story to be Ab Ovo if it began with the Beginning Conflict. Not the conflict the character themselves face, as most of the time that would be In Media Res, but rather with a larger conflict, such as War or Famine, something that CAUSES the conflicts the character later faces.
For examples of that, I could only really find a technical example. In “A Journey To the West”, it is generally accepted that The Monkey King is the most important character (or at least, he’s the fan favorite), where as the MAIN character is in fact the Priest that he accompanies on the eponymous Journey. However, the story BEGINS with the Monkey King getting himself thrown in Monkey Jail for arguing with God. (There are numerous versions of this story, including but not limited to Saiyuki, two TV series’ in both 1986 and 1996, and my personal favorite: Patalliro Saiyuki. More examples can be found here. )
Now, if the Monkey King had minded his own damned business and stayed in his lane, he might have been able to stop the Ox King’s rampage, which is what caused the Priest to have to set out in the first place. So, by that definition, this story would start Ab Ovo.
This doesn’t seem to discredit the theory that you should perhaps only use Ab Ovo in your story if you wish it to be fairy-tale like in quality. In fact, it gives it more credence. Really, it’s very difficult to hold an audience’s attention with a story that begins before the main character is even born. That’s why it’s generally considered rude to have a prologue, and many writers tell you not to bother with it, and to just turn it into later exposition. However, if the story is compelling enough (or culturally known well enough), you can most likely get away with it.