Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In the beginning...

Back in March I did some very unscientific research on first pages, which you can see here:
        A very unscientific look at first pages (with charts!) - part one
        A very unscientific look at first pages - part two

I decided a successful first page needs the magic three: Character, Setting and Intrigue. Of those three it seemed Intrigue was the most important. I didn't look beyond the first page in my very unscientific study, but it was a start.

Now, as I revise, I realise how much work my beginning really needs. Not just the first page - the whole beginning. I've already rewritten it from scratch once. Apparently once is not enough. My beginning is still in need of a lot of work. A lot of 'rewrite from scratch again' type work. The question is, where?

Where does my story start?

Something I've discovered, which is going to sound completely obvious to all of you, is that to answer this question you need to know what your story is. Since Blood Legacy was written with no planning whatsoever, I'm still learning about my story. My characters are always telling me I got it wrong, and my list of things to do in revisions gets longer and longer. For now I'm trying to put a big black line through 'get the beginning right'.

There's a lot of advice out there on how to answer the question on beginnings. The most helpful advice I've seen is start at the point of change.

Don't start with action for action's sake. Don't start with conflict for conflict's sake. Same with character. Same with setting. Avoid back story like the plague (also cliches). Start with change.

What changes in your story that triggers the snowball effect in the rest of the plot? What is the inciting incident? This doesn't have to be a huge event. Explosions aren't necessary. It could be very subtle, but it is the moment your story starts.

Think about it like this: your story, the story you want to tell, is only a small part of a much larger story. Your characters and world existed (in the land of make-believe -- let's not get too carried away) long before the events of your story began and long after it ends. Your characters had lives. Your world had history. But you're not telling the story of previous historical events, or how your characters came to be where they are now. You're telling the story of where they're going.

If the story before is a wide river flowing along a straight path, then your beginning is the the event that diverts that river -- the moment of change -- and the story you tell is the rapids and waterfalls and constricting gorges the river has to flow through before it can return to a new calm path.

Poison Study by Maria V Snyder, starts with the main character Yelena being taken from a cell where she's spent the last year, to what she believes is her execution. She's then given a choice -- die or become the Commander's new poison taster.

The story doesn't start with what she did to get into the cell. It doesn't start with the events leading to her taking such an action. It starts with the moment of change. The reason the rest of the story happens. Up until that point her path was leading to death, and it was diverted with a choice. What happens after ... well I'll let you read it to find out.

Not all stories have the moment of change so soon, but the best ones often start as close to that point as possible. Anything else is set-up. Anything else can lose a reader.

Do you find beginnings difficult? Do you know when your story starts, or are you still trying to figure that out, like me? Do you agree with starting with the point of change, or do you have another take on beginnings?


  1. my beginning just came to me, but i think i am lucky like that. But it is also the point of change for my character, it is an action scene but it is not just for the sake of action but beacuse my character needs to do certain things so that she meets the person she does at the end of the first chapter that changes the coarse of her life. i think the point of change IS the start of the story and hate when i read books and i feel like that point doesn't happen until the middle of the book.

  2. Great post Sari. I do think inciting incidents keep the reader moving along, but I suppose a really engaging character could do the same if there were doing something...interesting. Which I suppose would be an inciting incident. Hmm.

  3. Kristin Nelson has a related post -- Openings to avoid when writing fantasy novels.

  4. One of the most valuable books I ever read on writing is Story by Robert McKee. It totally changed my perspective on how to write a novel.  I still page through it when I'm blocked.

  5. I find beginnings really difficult and I usually rewrite my beginning several times.  This was a beautiful post!

  6. Hey Mood, thanks for the link! Checking it out now.

    I agree about Hunger Games, and also that rules are made to be broken, but as a reader I think more often than not I'm more excited about the book when something is happening very soon into the story. I have a short attention span and there's a lot of other books on my TBR pile!

  7. That's good advice, Lana. Explanation at the start of the story can really slow it down, and is better woven through the story in small bits, if it's even necessary.

  8. Hi Prue, ten places to start is a lot! I hope you figure it out.

    I don't think books need to start with immediate action. I probably didn't make that very clear. I don't think the point of change (or inciting incident) equals action. It could, but it doesn't have to. But I do think starting the story as close to that point of change is good, because before that point is set up, after that point is story.

    An example of a POC without action: in Twilight (whether you love it or hate it, it was the first example that came to mind) Bella is moving to her dad's place in Fork's from page one. This is her point of change - the event that sparks the rest of the story.

  9. Hi Vicki, I hope it was at least a little helpful. :) I find beginnings tough too (obviously). Hopefully we'll both get there!

  10. Very true, Christine. In my limited experience I've found the beginning to be the hardest part of the story to write. The end was easy in comparison!

  11. Beginnings are tough, no doubt. I wrote mine a few times, then said the heck with it and moved on. After my 1st draft was completed, I could see where I really needed to start and I'm much happier with it.

    I agree that the story should start at, or just before, a point of change. This point can be the inciting event, but it doesn't have to be. I think of the inciting event as the spot where the MC's choice leads them down the path of the story. A point of change, for me, doesn't necessarily involve the MC making a choice. So for instance, my first chapter focuses on a new opportunity that's presented to my character. It will change her life, but it doesn't involve her making much of a choice and it doesn't set up the main plot yet. That happens in chapter two, when the new opportunity gets her into trouble and she has to make a choice about how to solve it. That choice is my inciting event, it's where the real plot starts.

    Writing the end tends be more difficult than the beginning for me.  Great post! 

  12. I think it depends on the book. Some books suggest a beginning but others don't. It can be trial, error, and a lot of work to try and find out what should go on the first page.

    Great post.

  13. I'm very interested in how to start a book in an effective way. I've been running a series of first chapter dissection on my blog looking at the openings of various successful debut novels in different genres.  What I can tell you is that there is a huge variation in approaches, and how you capture the reader's attention isn't just a matter of starting at the inciting incident. You have to have one, you just don;t have to start there.

    The YA book I looked at was Hunger Games and that has quite a slow opening, but with a lot of foreshadowing and a strong voice.  If you're interested you can check out the series here@


  14. I'm worried about the beginning of my book. As far as I'm aware, there's no inciting incident. Because it starts with the birth of my main character, which is an incident in itself. Then it jumps forward a few years where she has her first adventure. But it's still not really an inciting incident. I guess the inciting incident would be when the father she's never met takes her away from her village, but then I'm trying to figure out how to tell the several stories that happen before that incident. My character is too complicated and unique to just launch into 'here's her every day life then something exciting happens and changes her life forever'.
    I'm a little bit lost, but everyone who's read it so far loves the opening few chapters. So I'm guessing in this type of bildungsroman, maybe my novel doesn't even require an inciting incident?

  15. I do find beginning tough, and I've often had to delete entire paragraphs (Keep in mind I'm talking about short stories, so each paragraph has to be essential to the story). I find that a lot of beginnings are full of information that is more for the author than the reader. It sets up the story for the author, almost like I plan. I like to find those parts at the start of my story and delete them. And then I start where those parts ends. Which is I guess when things are stopped being explained, and are actually happening. If that makes sense. 

  16. Well, the beginning is kind of tough!! but at same time good .. due to the enthusiasm I have!!

    the excitement on the fact .. that I have started is quite good to keep me moving (till I come across a break)!!

  17. Tcha! Beginnings are so very MEGA-DIFFICULT!!! Currently I'm writing a short story c. 8000 words. Not a lot of room for manoeuver. Yet I can think of at least ten, yes 10! different places for the thing to start. Eeeeeeep! Only one ending though - a case of all roads leading to Rome.
    I'm also not convinced by immediate action. Yes, for some books it's a great way to start; and yet I know books that don't begin that way and are still great books.
    Is starting with Action a current fashion? Or do the majority of books, old and new, begin that way? That would make a good piece of research ;)