WRITING BEGINNINGSBy Norah Wilson
When I signed up to write a blog about beginnings in the context of plot, I was thinking about story structure – beginning, middle and end. The beginning is probably the toughest part of a novel to write, because so much is riding on it. It will take up prob
ably 20-25% of your story, yet it has to establish tone and setting, introduce the main characters, and introduce the major dramatic question (story set up/situation). In those pages, you have to build a world the reader can believe in, peopled with characters whose actions are well motivated and make sense in the context of their own world views.
If that isn’t pressure enough, you have to do worry about your story’s literal beginning, the first line, first paragraph, page, chapter. The fact is, all that wonderful work you’ve done—the lovely character arc(s) you’ve designed, the intricate weaving of plot and subplots, the fabulous scenes you have in mind—will be all for naught if you don’t hook the reader early and draw them in to your story. I know, I know. Scary!
So how do you begin a novel in a way that will hook the reader and draw her in? That’s a darned good question, and one I struggle to answer every time I start a book. You can have the world’s most exciting inciting incident, but if the reader hasn’t bonded with your characters, they may just shrug and say, “Why should I care?”.
Let’s talk a moment about inciting incident. That’s the thing that happens to your protagonist to radically upset the balance of his or her life. It is the event that starts your story rolling and raises the major story question. To paraphrase Robert McKee, it arouses a desire in the protagonist to put things right, causing him to conceive his object of desire, his goal, the thing that will put things back into balance. For those of you who subscribe to the hero’s journey as your plotting companion, this is the Call to Adventure. The hero can resist the call initially, but eventually will answer it, launching an active pursuit of his goal (the quest).
Some authors hit the ground running with an explosive opening, plunging us right into the inciting incident. That can certainly work; heck, I've done it. But for the most part, I prefer to try to establish empathy for my characters first. For hero’s journey fans, this would equate to showing your hero in the Ordinary World, before he gets the Call to Adventure. But don’t linger in the ordinary world too long! Today’s readers are primed for a fast start. As McKee puts it, “Bring in the inciting incident as soon as possible but not before the moment is ripe.”
Okay, back to making the reader identify/empathize with your characters so that they’ll give a hoot. For me, one of the keys is authenticity. You have to make that character feel real. You have to research the milieu until you can make me believe your police detective is the real deal, slouched at his desk in the detective’s bullpen, re-reading his report. Make me feel the knot in his gut, which he blames on the rotgut coffee, not the victim interview he just did. When I’ve really started to feel for this guy, who no doubt just wants to get home after an extended shift, hit him with that inciting incident.
If you’ve judged contest entries, you probably know quite a few things NOT to do in your beginning. For instance, do not try to jam too much information into the first few paragraphs or pages. I want to be oriented in a setting fairly quickly, but I don’t want to be inundated with so much detail that the pace drags. I want to get to know the characters, but I don’t want to have their backstory dumped on me all at once. I want to form a picture of the H&h, but not necessarily through long passages of detailed physical description.
Another key to great beginnings, I think, is to write loose and easy. Confident. That will show in the first paragraphs, and the reader will immediately relax, believing they are in capable hands.
“But I’m NOT confident!” you wail. Fair enough. But here’s another tip: You know that expression, “Fake it until you can make it?” Well it works in fiction, too. Once you’ve mastered basic craft, you just have to remind yourself no one knows you’re terrified. Relax, take a deep breath, and start writing as though you believe your reader will follow. That’s what I do! In fact, you be the judge. Here’s the opening of my current WIP.
This is not the inciting incident. It contains minimal setting information, and has no physical description of the characters. But does it work to draw you in? I’m not really going for empathy here (that comes later when we learn why he’s doing what he’s doing), but I’m starting to paint one dimension of my hero. Would you read further to learn who these people are and what’s happening?
Aiden Affleck hummed to himself as he lifted the brass doorknocker to summon St. Cloud Police Chief Weldon Michaels to the front door of his Carrington Place residence. Rapping twice, he stepped back.
What was that tune running through his head? It had been with him since he’d risen this evening.
Queens of the Stone Age? Un-uh.
Collective Soul? Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Definitely. He cricked his neck one way, then the other and felt the satisfying crack. Ooh, I’m feeling better now.
The curtain in the bay window twitched, but Aiden feigned obliviousness. From inside, he clearly heard Michaels jam a clip into an automatic weapon. Aiden rolled his eyes. Nobody trusted anyone anymore.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
The voice came through the door. A cautious man indeed.
“I’m a friend of your wife’s,” Aiden called. “Well, more a friend of a friend, actually, but I have a personal message for you, from her.”
“Nice try. Now move on, before I call the cops.”
Aiden thought about knocking the door in. It was solid oak with a good deadbolt on it, but it could be made from cardboard and paperclips for all the challenge it would present. On the other hand, there was no reason to get messy.
He cleared his throat, did his best to summon a puzzled tone. “Well, hell, I thought you were the cops. Do I have the wrong address? I’m looking for Chief Weldon Michaels. Got a message for him from his wife Lucy. Pretty woman, ‘bout an inch over five feet, brown hair and eyes? Oh, and a real cute little daughter. What’s her name? Devon? Any of this sounding familiar?”
Silence for a few heartbeats. “What kind of message?”
“She wants to come home, but before she can see her way clear to doing that, we need to have ourselves a talk.”
Another pause, then the sound of the deadbolt retracting. The door cracked open, and Weldon Michaels peered out past a security chain.
Oh, God save me from fools. Growling, Aiden pushed the door open. The hardware anchoring the security chain tore free from the wall. Before Michaels could cry out, Aiden stepped inside and closed the door behind him. In the next heartbeat, he seized Michaels’ right wrist and squeezed until the other man screamed and dropped the pistol. It hit the hardwood floor with a clatter but didn’t discharge.
“A gun?” Aiden released the other man’s hand. “Now I ask you, what kind of a reception is that?”