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Ab Ovo – A review of a Literary Term

  • Posted on January 15, 2016 at 2:57 pm

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.

Breaking Down Nemesis: Part Three

  • Posted on August 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Hello again, all! Time for Part Three of the Breaking Down Nemesis Series, in which we break down “Miss Marple Takes Action”. For those of you just joining us, the previous two posts can be found by clicking the above posts, or these links right here: Part One and Part Two.

At the last we left off, Miss Marple had just finished reading a letter from the deceased Mr. Rafiel, who provided her with a code-word– “Nemesis”- and instructions to solve a crime. But what crime? Now, Miss Marple must take action, as the chapter title so endearingly states, and we begin to see how the lovable elderly lady whom Murder She Wrote was based upon works!

This gif says everything.

Like us, Miss Marple is startled over the amount of information she received. Or rather, the sheer lack of information. Dismissing the idea of Mr. Broadribb providing her any more information, Jane quickly decides that it was intriguing. And that, perhaps, Mr. Rafiel had meant it to be.

She then goes on to describe it as a crossword puzzle with no clues given. Considering for a moment, that he might have meant her to take a plane or boat to the West Indies or to South America, she decides that if that’s what he meant, he’s insane. Which, I agree. After all, he couldn’t expect her to find something to solve there that had anything to do with him? No, instead, Miss Marple would have to find something from her own stores of knowledge.

Three days later, Miss Marple writes a letter to Mr. Broadribb, letting him know she’s accepted the proposal (and wants that 25000. See Part Two for a visual representation of the money.) and that she really was expecting more information. She asks him questions about Mr. Rafiel’s relationships and connections, and whether or not he’d had a relative that might have fallen on an unjust situation.

Again, we are treated to Mr. Broadribb and Mr. Schuster talking. They seem to have no idea what to tell her either. Now, in this section, Mr. Schuster said something that I find rather offensive.

“-I don’t see the least chance that some old pussy from the country can interpret a dead man’s brain and know what fantasy was plaguing him.-”

-Mr. Schuster

Now, I realize that it was true to the times, as this is exactly how a man of that day and age might talk if he were uncultured swine, and I think it was used exactly to show that this man was boorish and rude. More and more I find myself disliking this man. I hope he ends up getting kicked by a horse or something. He also brings up the idea that Mr. Rafiel might be trying to take Miss Marple down a peg, ‘teach her a lesson’ so to speak, by sending her on a fool’s errand.

Mr. Broadribb, however, doesn’t. He seems to think that something was worrying Mr. Rafiel, and that he was dead serious about all this. Since neither can fathom what Mr. Rafiel might have been thinking, they decide to wait for some development. Meanwhile, Miss Marple waited for something to turn up as well. In fact, she ends up getting yelled at by Cherry for taking walks too much.

Apparently, her doctor has said that she wasn’t to exercise too much. Which honestly sounds odd to me, because exercise has good affects on the health. But well, it was back in old times, so. Cherry, done telling Miss Marple off, goes and has dinner with her husband, Chinese food, specifically, which set me off to craving Chinese too.

During after-dinner tea, she and Miss Marple talk about the house at the end of the village, which has been repainted, done up and someone called Miss Hastings moved in. If you remember from Part One, Miss Hastings is the employer of Miss Bartlett, whom Miss Marple talked about gardens with briefly. Miss Marple decides just then to write a letter. Specifically, to another friend from this previous adventure we still know nothing about, a Miss Prescott, who is sister to Canon Prescott, a clergyman.  She feels much better after sending the letter, because at least she’s done something.

Joan replies quickly, informing her of Mrs. Walter’s location. Apparently, Mrs. Walters DID remarry, and she’s now Mrs. Alderson or Anderson now. Miss Prescott provides her address, and Miss Marple sleeps on whether or not she should contact her by surprise, or write her first. And that night, she has a dream: MissMarpleDreamQuote

“I had a curious dream,…I was talking to someone, not anyone I knew very well. Just talking. Then when I looked, I saw it wasn’t that person at all I was talking to. It was somebody else. Very odd.”

This is the most brilliant bit of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen. Who does it refer to? Is Mrs. A not going to turn out to be who Miss Marple remembers? Perhaps Joan Prescott was not who she seemed? Or maybe something else entirely! I can’t wait to find out. What a lovely shiver from it, it seems so important!

Decided now, Miss Marple asks Cherry to help her set up a sting operation. Cherry is to call Mrs. A, and ask if she’s to be home today. If she answers or if she is going to come to the phone, she’s to say that Cherry is Mr. Broadribb’s secretary and ask if she can meet with him later that week. If she is to be home that day, then Cherry is to find out when she comes back.

Turns out Mrs. A is going to be in all day, and Miss Marple sets off in a cab towards her next clue!

I’ve noticed a trend, as I began breaking down these chapters. They’re quite short, for the most part. Easy to digest in a bus ride or over a lunch break. I find it easy enough to read a chapter, but not so easy to stop. With things picking up the pace, I can definitely begin to see why some have called Miss Agatha’s work addictive. I didn’t go into much detail about it, but even the cab-company gets some expanding on, information that Miss Marple remembers.

The descriptions in the beginning ARE very lengthy and quite detailed, which is definitely a point towards out Agatha Christie Code theory. But what drew me in the most in this chapter is how seamlessly Miss Marple went from having no idea what to do next, to thinking through, logically, onto what she should do next, her next point of contact. It was, again, very organic. It was what I had been thinking about in chapter two, just after I read the letter. Contacting Mrs. A is her best bet, and the logic of it gives the reader a sense of accomplishment, because they thought of it too.

In the comments section, please tell me your opinion on this. Is it a good thing to allow the reader to guess what is going to happen before hand? Or does it ruin the mystery of the story? When was the last time you read something so compelling that it felt as if you were deducing it yourself before the character?

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