When it comes to time and place, a story can start anywhere and anywhen.
I know this to be true because I read a lot of books and I’ve read plenty that open at all different points in the tale. From the day a character was born to his last words on his deathbed and everywhere in between. I’ve read books that took their time establishing the world in which they were set, and I’ve read those that have started in the middle of action with no preamble.
Many have been great. Quite a few have been terrible.
What this tells me is that where and when you start isn’t a deciding factor. Of course it makes a difference how well a scene is executed, but that is true of any scene in any part of the book.
So then what are the important things that should be included in the opening pages and why?
The first thing to realise is that the purpose of the opening is not to inform the reader of who the story is about and where it is set and what tone it will take.
All those things are useful and need to be addressed at some point (and the beginning of the book is a pretty good place to do it) but none of them are vital. Plenty of books have started without explaining themselves very clearly, with secondary characters, or events the main characters aren’t even aware of.
The purpose of the first chapter is this: to get the reader to read at least the next chapter and ideally the rest of the book.
If the reader isn’t compelled to find out the rest of the story then it doesn’t matter what method or structure you use.
There are a variety of ways an opening chapter can achieve this. Some genres have their own conventions. A murder mystery might open with the crime, a political thriller might start with an international incident. If the problem is intriguing enough (or the intrigue is problematic enough) that can be all a fan of the genre needs.
But if you aren’t writing within those kinds of conventions then the easiest way to hook a reader is to connect them to the character.
If I tell you I heard someone won the big lottery, you will be mildly interested. If I tell you my sister won the lottery, you’ll be a bit more interested. If I tell you your sister won the lottery you’ll be demanding I tell you how I know this and where’s the proof and how do I know your sister and am I joking? I’m joking right?
The point is how interested you are in events, even major events, will be strongly affected by your connection to the person the events are happening to.
This is also true of fiction. And this is why far more important than where or when a story opens is making the reader feel connected to the main character.
But this isn’t a simple matter of providing pertinent background details and a summary of likes and dislikes.
What you as the writer need to know is what the character wants. And then use this to work out what it is the character lacks.
Most writers are aware that the main character in their story has to want something. There will be a goal they need to achieve and a large part of the book will deal with them trying to achieve it.
But just because someone wants something doesn’t mean the rest of us will care. There has to be more to it than that. There has to be a reason why this particular goal is important to this particular person. And while you can often just raise the stakes to justify any action in the short term (We’re all going to die, quick do something!), simply reacting in survival mode will provide a lightweight reading experience.
At a deeper level what motivates a character isn’t what they want, it’s what they lack. And demonstrating what they lack is what the story’s opening should be about.
Sometimes what they want and what they lack may be the same thing. A character who was born poor and struggled might become a ruthless businessman who values money over everything. But cause and effect put that bluntly can feel simplistic and clunky. That’s why thrillers and romances can often feel superficial when their characters are driven by very basic needs.
The missing ingredient in a character’s life is very important. Without it what they want becomes arbitrary and inconsequential.
Yes it’s important the villain is prevented from destroying the world, but that doesn’t mean our guy has to be the one who stops him.
The void a character is trying to fill not only provides the reason why they have to be the one to complete this mission, it also puts them at a disadvantage which provides conflict. They don’t have all the tools they need so it’s a struggle for them.
A lot of the time writers, being natural storytellers, will work this sense of lacking into a character’s make up without even being aware of it. Subliminally we’re absorbing this idea in everything we read, whether it’s Harry’s dead parents or Bilbo’s comfortable life devoid of excitement and adventure.
The important part, though, isn’t identifying what’s missing, but what effect that absence has.
As an example, let’s say I’m writing a story about a guy who kills the terrible dragon and saves the kingdom. The question, though, is why him? What about him makes him a dragon hunter?
Which leads me to the second thing the opening needs. It needs to be connected to the main plot.
If my opening scene shows the hero being bullied by the other kids and the main plot is about him growing up to fight dragons, then while there’s nothing wrong with those individual parts, their lack of connection will not make for a very satisfying read.
Yes, we like him for standing up to bullies when he was a kid, and it’s very exciting as he battles large winged lizards, but what has one thing got to do with the other?
But if his family was killed by a dragon leaving him alone in the world, and he grows up to fight dragons, then the reader’s sympathy for his predicament and their understanding of his ultimate goal, will be a lot more cohesive.
That’s not to say the connection has to be quite as heavy-handed as the example I’m using, but it should be obvious the emotional connection between who the character is and what they end up doing is linked to how the reader responds to the story.
So you want to connect the reader to the character and you want this aspect of the character to transition naturally and satisfyingly into the main plot. And the point of this post (yes, this post does have a point) is to show that there is a simple but powerful way to do this. And that’s to understand that a character isn’t driven by what they want, but by what was taken away from them, what they lost, what they don’t have.
In my example of the guy whose family was killed by a dragon, you might think the best place to start that story is to show how his family died and how he survived. That would certainly be an option.
But what the dragon really took away from him was anyone for him to rely on or be supported by. He is alone and has to take care of himself. Even if he overcomes that to become a dragon hunter he will always have that hole in his life. How will that manifest itself? Will he be fearless (because he has nothing left to lose)? Will he be angry and cruel (because it was the only way to survive)? Will he be afraid to get close to people (so he never has to go through grief again)?
Whatever the fallout of his particular experience (of which there are an infinite number of possibilities), that is what you need in the opening in order to make the reader connect with the character.
It’s the behaviour that’s important, not the specifics of how it came to be (that can always come later), so the scene can take place anywhere and anywhen. No dragons even need to be mentioned.
And when the main plot does kick in, the emotional need for the character to be the one who does this thing will resonate with the reader without you having to point it out at all.
The simplest way to achieve this is to work backwards. You know what the character is going to end up doing (even if they don’t). Work out what is missing from his life that makes him destined to be the one to do this. How does this lack affect his behaviour? Demonstrate this behaviour in the opening scene.If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.