Monday 13 January 2014

What a Story Needs to Begin

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.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What the character lacks - hey, I did that right in my second book!

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

My cold medicine must be messing with my head, cause my eyes crossed a couple times. Today what I need, are a couple bullets to summarize the to-dos, and the not-to-dos.

mooderino said...

@alex - way ahead of me as usual.

@Mac - I try to sum it up in the last paragraph (try being the operative word).

Christine Rains said...

I start off with character. The world building and conflicts build with that. I like what Alex said. I like to have my first few pages breaking what is normal for the protagonist.

sjp said...

A different approach to all those 'How to write Chapter 1' posts, one that makes sense and makes the story stronger thanks :)

mooderino said...

@Christine - it's the aspect of the character that appeals to the reader that's often hardest to pin down. Hopefully there are some ideas here that will help.

@sjp - trying to think up new stuff to say (that still makes sense) is pretty much how I avoid doing any real work. And you're welcome.

Rusty Carl said...

I like you stressing that there needs to be a connection between the main plot and the events in the hook in the opening chapter. It all sounds so simple to me... until I'm staring at my manuscript and thinking, what the crap?

Thanks though, it'll all sink in someday.

Author Leanne Dyck said...

Your articles are so well-written and your points so well made, I know you have to be a Language Arts teacher. And if you aren't, you need to be. Thank you for this...

Unknown said...

I fully agree. There have been many books that I put down because of a horrible story beginning.

Unknown said...

Holy crap. I just started a new WIP and now you're making me re-think the entire stakes and urgency level. I think my mc needs a better reason to go off on the adventure. Ack! I'll have to re-plot. *facepalm* But it's really good that you drove this point home so I'd understand it now rather than later. Thanks!! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm struggling with the first chapter of two of my WIPs. I'm reading this at the right time.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - making that connection not obvious and yet perfectly obvious when it's revealed is one of the things most people have trouble reconciling. Working it out backwards is a handy way to do it.

@Leanne - I'm not really sure what a Language Arts teacher is . I imagine it's like a martial arts teacher but with deadly words. Am I close?

@Lilith - I think openings will become ever more important as people check out the first chapter before buying online.

@Lexa - glad to help (I think).

@Medeia - I find it hard enough to do one at a time!

Max Griffin said...

This is an awesome post. It's already helping me work through plot issues in my WIP as well as assisting with the first chapter. I've shared it with my critique group on Writing.Com as well. Thank you!!

Elise Fallson said...

I think you should start the story with the dragon, picking food out from between his teeth--with a leg bone... (;

And congratulations on being one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers 2014! Much deserved.

Tracy Jo said...

Great information and thoughts. Made me think and want to get to my writing. Thank you!

mooderino said...

@Bill - and thank you. Hope your group gets something out of it.

@Elise - thanks for letting me know about the 100 Best thing, I had no idea.

Elise Fallson said...


Anonymous said...

It doesn't even have to be a big smack in the face. I loved City of Thieves.

Go find a dozen eggs.

But the story just took off!

A fabulous book. So well plotted.

mooderino said...

@sparrow - often a slight tap on the cheek is all that's needed.

The Armchair Squid said...

Excellent insight - something to look for as a reader, too.

LD Masterson said...

Your posts so often send me back to specific parts of my WIP to make sure I've got it right. Thank you for that.

mooderino said...

@Squid - cheers.

@LD - that's a good thing, right?

Unknown said...

Agreed; I enjoy a story much more when a character's flaws are influencing the flow of the story. You're right too that the opening shouldn't be bogged down with exposition; it needs you to turn the page, and to do that you need to connect with the character.

mooderino said...

@Jamie - the plot is really just a way to get to know the character, flaws and all.

Jeff Hargett said...

What struck me most was in your opening. I kept thinking how equally important the ending is. By that point, the reader has invested a good deal of time and effort with the anticipation of a satisfying end. Letting them down there can prevent them from even picking up the second title.

As always, I do appreciate your insight.

mooderino said...

@jeff - I think the ending is very closely connected to the opening, sometimes without us even being aware of it.

Stephen Tremp said...

I work backwards sometimes. It's very effective. I develop the outline then I'm all over the place. Backwards, front forward, side ways, inside out.. Sometimes it depends on what mood I'm in.

Anonymous said...

For me, character first and begin as close to the action as possible.

Sarah Allen said...

Thank you for another practical, informative post! I like the idea of working backwards, that would make the whole thing more cohesive. And I love Tin Man :)

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

mooderino said...

@stephen - there are many way to exfoliate a feline, as I believe the saying goes.

@Missy - an interesting character makes things much easier.

TL said...

This was a really great interpretation of that good old pain-in-the-rear Chapter 1!

Valerie Heller said...

Not just what the character wants, but what s/he lacks. A-ha! This shift in thinking may just be the piece I've been missing. I've been so focused on figuring out how to show what my mc wants that I've been ignoring what's missing from her life. And that's what my critique group has been asking for, but not in so many words. Thank you for clearing that up!!!

Karny said...

I made my way her by way of Anne R. Allen's blog...I've never seen it put this way...Thank you. The right blog post at the right time...I love it when that happens. I'm going to go write now...

Warjna said...

Found my way here by way of MJ Bush's blog, Writing Geekery; I'll be following you now! This article clarified the problem I've been having with my WIP. I "sort of" knew what was needed, and I "sort of" was working my way to it, but I was still just somehow missing the mark. Your statement that a character isn't driven by what they want, but by what was taken away from them, was the key. That is exactly what was motivating my MC, I just hadn't refined it enough. Now that I know the key, I can work backwards (again, *sigh*) and get to the right place. More work, but it will be SO much better when I'm done! Thank you!

DARER DAD said...

I have 6 book on Google covering 30 years what else can I do to get them out to the world

DARER DAD said...

I have 6 book on Google covering 30 years what else can I do to get them out to the world

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