Literary Term – Ab ovo

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Original article

More than likely, you’ve never heard of this term. Kind of a weird sounding term. Is it even English? Well, actually… it’s not English. It’s Latin. Ab ovo means: from the beginning, the origins, or the egg.

The term Ab ovo originates from the story of Zeus, the King of all Gods. One day, for reasons, he becomes a swan. As a swan, he is chased by an eagle and seeks shelter. He finds shelter in the home of Leta. After some time, Leta and the swan have sex, and she gives birth to an egg (some stories state two eggs), to which Helen of Troy was born.

It’s a rather disturbing story, but many Ancient Greek stories are.

So what is Ab ovo when it comes to writing? It is a story that starts at the beginning of a narrative. What I mean by this, in relation to the central conflict, is that everything starts with this story. There is no previous events that happened prior to the start of this story that is connected to the conflict. The conflict of the story, starts after page 1.

To explain this further, let’s look real quick at another term, In medias res. Another latin term. It basically means, that it starts in the middle. Perhaps a good example of this is Star Wars EP IV (A New Hope). The first of all Star Wars movie established that there was once a great Republic, that was destroyed by the Empire, and there are rebels fighting against the Empire. There was already a story going prior to the start of Episode IV.

How we determine whether a story is Ab ovo or In medias res is the conflict itself. The conflict is the story. While a character has their own conflict that begins with this story, there may be a bigger conflict going on that affect the character or the character is affecting. So with the greater conflict, we need to ask… when did it start. If it started before the first page of our story, it is In medias res. If the story didn’t start until after the first page, then it is Ab ovo.

Perhaps a good example of Ab ovo is Shaun of the Dead. The overall conflict of the story is the zombie apocalypse. It starts after the beginning of the film. Now the character does have a backstory, which is played for laughs for the beginning of the film, however, the conflict that unites all characters began in this film, not before. Now, no official explanation is given of why people turned into zombies, and it very well could have been an action that started before the movie, though equally, it could have started after the start of the film.

 

Another example is 1978 Superman film. This is up for some debate, but we must consider that the central conflict in the story is between Superman and Lex Luthor. The story begins with Superman as a baby, sent across the universe for 1000 years (but only three years for the baby due to time dilation). Then he lands on Earth and the story begins from there. Anything prior to landing on Earth is just backstory for the character.

susannah-york-superman-the-movie

https://josephmallozzi.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/susannah-york-superman-the-movie.jpg

There is also starting at the end of the story. This is called In ultimas res. Either the story is told in reverse (starting with the end and going back to the beginning), or the entire story is told as a flashback. In ultimas res will be discussed later.

When it comes to how stories are told, you generally don’t see Ab ovo used a lot (In ultimas res is rarely used). Most often, it is In medias res, where the conflict of the story had already started prior to the start of the story. However, just because most stories are like that, doesn’t mean yours has to be.

TVTropes

These tropes are not exclusively for Ab ovo, but can be used in Ab ovo.

Easing Into Adventure
A Hero is Born

 

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