Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday 5: Where do you start?

We all know that the beginning of your book is what hooks readers (not to mention agents and editors). From your first line to your first 50 pages, it's really important to get it right -- to convey the right amount of characterization, conflict, interest, and plot.

Recently, I was thinking a lot about my first chapters in terms of the whole story arc. In two stories, the first chapter starts in the middle of the action (in media res if you want to be all fancy pants about it; I don't though). But this may have the effect of the first plot point coming too soon.

For example, something happens (inciting incident) which causes something major to happen (plot point one). I'm worried that my inciting incident and my plot point one follow one another too fast. In the case of my current story, it happens within the same chapter. My husband, whose feet were held to the fire in order to get him to read my first draft, asked me last night, "Is there a twist to this story?"

That made me really wonder if the first plot point had gotten old by the third chapter! So for this week's Thursday 5, I'm listing a few ways to start a novel. Can you tell me the way you start yours?

  1. With action. The inciting incident occurs as the story opens.
  2. With characterization. The characters talk, think, extrapolate, or otherwise consider the world around them.
  3. With setup. This is a scene that sets up the inciting incident.
  4. With backstory. We know we're not supposed to use it, but it's appropriate in some cases, I would think.
  5. Some other way I'm not thinking of.
Well? And while you're telling me, could you also tell me if you think I need more space between my inciting incident and plot point one? (I know you haven't read it. I know. But a few of you are reading it.)


Julie Dao said...

I start my stories in the middle of the action, usually. What's weird is that I've noticed I never start it in real time - it's usually a scene from the past or a scene from the future - but it's always just as something big is happening.

I have an award for you at my blog!! :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Hi Sierra! I found my way to your blog via Julie Dao's. So glad I did!

I've been mulling over the starting chapter(s) of my WIP for months now. My plot arc is somewhat different than the typical three or five act storyline. In my story, the protagonist and antagonist are strangers living in different states. A computer-generated phone call puts them on a collision course, but they don't actually meet until mid-way through the story. So, I introduce the protagonist and her life's conflicts in chapter one; I introduce the antagonist and his story in chapter two; and, the fated call is made in chapter three, setting the main storyline in motion.

The story goes back and forth with each major character narrating his/her chapters. Once they enter the same scenes, the reader will only see the story through the filter of one POV per chapter.

So to answer the question, I think the opening chapters will be action, but the inciting incidents will serve to introduce the characters and the moment of their lives that are riddled with personal conflict, but which in hindsight will prove to be the calm before the storm to come.

OMG! My first visit to your blog and I wrote a chapter-length comment! So sorry -- but the topic is uber-relevant for me :))

I look forward to reading more of what you have to say!

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Mine starts with action - the exact moment the event that drives the rest of the story occurs. Then I back away a bit for some (hopefully entertaining and informative) characterization.

Anonymous said...

First, I'd like to suggest readeing How To Start Your Story over on Carrie's blog.

Anyway, I just need a story with some tension. This can be internal or external--"action" or "emotion", but if the story gets more than a few pages without something interesting happening, I drop it. I have to say I'm against flash-forwards or flashbacks providing this tension. It's a cheap trick for when the story isn't starting in the right place.

It's possible to start with the "rumination"--which is the same as your "characterization", but it takes a fantastic character voice to keep the reader interested, especially if the genre you're writing is is more focused on action.

In regards to the set-up method, it can work well too. I think starting after the inciting incident provides more tension, but starting before it can get the reader more invested in the characters.

The problem with an action start is that the reader doesn't yet care about the characters, so you can't just throw in an explosion or a gunshot and hook them. There has to be someone on the receiving end of that danger for them to sympathize with.

Backstory... I used to be a big proponent of this, but I've gotten to the point where I think it's a one in a million book that can take this approach and get past the query stage. Unless there's a first person or tight third with a fantastic voice, this just doesn't catch the reader’s attention.

Travener said...

Mine starts with a dead guy.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Hmm. I missed Carrie's post on this earlier this week!
But one thing Carrie's post and my post above doesn't address is the thing I'm really after, and which I couldn't process until this morning: THE PACING OF THE BEGINNING.

Let me clarify the problem.

When you start a story, you can start it any way you want as fits your plot and style. But I regard any of the various styles as set up for the big main first plot point. Wizard of oz: starts with action where the evil Mrs. Gulch tries to take Toto and put him down, right...but all that black and white BS is just set up for D's entry to Oz (plot pt 1, perhaps, right?).

Lt. -- yours starts with action, but is that set up for the jumping off point in the story?

So I think what I'm really wondering right now is how to pace the beginning up until the plot point one, and I'm worried that that first main plot point comes too quickly.

Nicole -- welcome to the blog and thank you for commenting! I love comments and yours is great.

DL Hammons said...


Im my opinion a book should begin at whichever point builds enough forward momentum to keep the reader engaged. Think of it as riding a scooter. The first push is all important, creating exhilieration and foward motion. All subsequent pushes come at a point where momentum begins to erode. Bringing in another plot point, or push, too early is wasteful.

Does that make any kind of an obtuse sort of way?

Sierra Godfrey said...

Don.... "All subsequent pushes come at a point where momentum begins to erode."

You win. That's it. That's the guide I needed. Thanks for clarifying that!

Yvonne said...

Hello! First, thanks for becoming my 60th follower!!! It rocked me! I'm going to read more here later. Bedtime for this blogger. Just wanted to shout out thanks. Oh, and I started with action in one novel and action/backstory/action in another.


Sierra Godfrey said...

Thank YOU Yvonne! I'm glad I was such a milestone!

Anonymous said...

Don nailed it. Now all that's left is figuring out for each story how much of a push you need to last between plot points.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

thanks for the follow :)

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Here we go again, tracking on the same wavelength. I blogged about this today and since I've not done any blog reading this week, I didn't even realize you have covered it too, lol. I think you, me, and Lynnette Labelle are all of one mind sometimes--scary.

I like the idea I learned in my workshop this past weekend of having some version of a setup (even if very brief) before all hell breaks loose.

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