Openings are critical to get someone to read our book, but how do we know where to start? The old "start with the action" has frustrated many a writer due to its ambiguity, and even when we think we've done it all correctly, beta readers can still feel the opening isn't grabbing them. Openings are hard, especially if you're not sure if you're starting in the right place. The sheer amount of "is this opening working?" submissions I get in Real Life Diagnostics is testament to that.
I've talked about first lines and first pages before, so today, let's focus on figuring out where to start your story, and how to diagnose it if you're worried you're starting in the wrong place.
First, analyze your current opening, either the first scene or the first chapter if it's only one scene:
Describe how the story opens in the first few pages.
Does it start with description, internalization, action, etc? What's the first thing readers see? Try to sum up your opening in one or two sentences and capture the essence of what it's doing. For example, if I described The Shifter, I'd say it opens with the protagonist, Nya, musing on the difficulty of stealing eggs vs. chickens, then getting caught stealing those eggs.
Describe the goal in the opening scene.
What's the character in this scene trying to do? Even if the scene has nothing to do with your core conflict, the protagonist should be acting in some way or trying to achieve something. For Nya, her goal is: Steal eggs for breakfast.
Describe your conflict.
Goals don't mean a lot if there's nothing in the way of getting them, so who or what is keeping the character from what they want to do? What type of conflict is creating the tension in this scene that will hook readers? For Nya, she wants to eat so she doesn't starve, but the owner of the chickens doesn't want to lose his eggs.
Describe your stakes.
What risk is the character facing? No matter how small the goal, there should be a consequence for failing that will keep readers interested. If the character isn't the one at risk, who else might be? For Nya, the stakes are getting caught stealing eggs.
Describe in one paragraph or less what happens next in the scene.
How does this moment move the story forward? A short description will force you to really look at what's going on in that scene and help pinpoint the goal-conflict-stakes structure. For Nya, she tries to talk her way out of the egg theft, but she can't, so she runs for it. During her escape she's forced to use her pain shifting ability to get away.
Describe how the first scene or chapter ends.
This event transitions into the next scene or chapter, and is the "oh no" moment that will hook the reader or not. How did the previous events in the scene get readers to this moment? Where will the story go from here? For Nya, she gets seen shifting pain by people who will definitely expose her secret, which will eventually get her noticed by the bad guy.
By now, you should have a solid feel for the opening of your novel. Next, step back and look at the story as a whole to see how this opening connects to the rest of the book:
1. What is the core conflict of your novel?
This may seem like a strange question to ask about a beginning, but the beginning is all about getting your protagonist to this core conflict. If you don't know where they're going, it's harder to know where they start that journey. Consider both the internal and external conflicts, as the opening scene might focus on the character arc first (internal conflict) and introduce the external conflict in a few chapters. For The Shifter, Nya is trying to save her missing sister, and having to decide how far she's willing to go to do that.
(Here's more on internal and external core conflicts)
2. When is the first moment where something happens to bring your protagonist into this core conflict?
It can be small, and it can be something they don't even know connects to it yet, but there's a moment where if they turned left instead of right, they never would have had this thing happen to them (the inciting event). That moment is when they made a choice or acted in a way that sets them on the plot path. This is the bridge moment that connects the opening to the rest of the novel. For The Shifter, it's when Nya gets caught using her shifting ability. Had that not happen, the rest of the novel would have turned out differently.
(Here's more on the inciting event)
3. What's happening when they trigger that moment and step onto the plot path?
Stories typically start in the normal world of the protagonist's life, so odds are your protagonist will be doing something normal that doesn't go as it usually does. What normal part of their life are they doing when this plot path moment occurs? For Nya, it's stealing food to survive.
(Here's more on writing the opening scene)
4. How does this event connect to your core conflict?
There's a reason this moment puts your protagonist on that plot path. You should be able to make a step by step list that shows how this event leads to the end of the book (if you can't, that's a red flag something is off). What is that reason? In The Shifter, shifting pain exposes Nya to the two power groups of the city who want to use her and her abilities, and they are the people involved in her sister's disappearance.
(Here's more on keeping your plot on target)
Finally, look at all your notes and ask:
Is your opening the same as #2 (The moment the protagonist is nudged toward the core conflict)?
YES: Odds are you're starting in the right place.
NO: Odds are you're starting too early or too late in the story, so it's either dragging before it gets started, or starting so fast readers feel lost and can't connect to the protagonist or problem enough to care about what's happening (even if it's exciting in a general sense).
Try rewriting the opening scene so it somehow gets the protagonist started toward the core conflict.
If there's a scene that does this later is the story, consider starting the book there, even if you have to cut or move some scenes around.
If yes, but something is still not working...
Look back at your opening analysis.
Is there anything in the opening scene analysis you didn't answer, or answered weakly (be honest)? If so, this is likely the problem. Answer those questions again with the core conflict in mind. If not, and everything looks good but something is still off, look at...
The first few pages: What is your protagonist doing on page one? Are they active in some way or is it more description or narrative that sets the scene? Perhaps there's too much setup and that's bogging the scene down. Try making the protagonist active and give them something to do.
Opening scene goal: Is the goal apparent from the first page, or is it a goal that actually appears later in the scene or chapter (or several chapter in)? Sometimes the protagonist is doing something unrelated at the start of a novel to set up the scene, then the real goal is mentioned several pages in, delaying the actual start of the book. Try showing the goal right from the start and have it clear what the protagonist is trying to do.
Opening scene stakes: Even if it's clear what the protagonist is doing, if readers don't care if that character succeeds or not they won't be curious enough to keep reading. Are the stakes worth worrying about? Even a mundane scene can have meaningful stakes if the protagonist cares enough about the outcome. For example, not buying milk when a character know it'll cause a huge fight with the spouse matters, even if it's just about milk. But stopping off for a latte that has no repercussions at all doesn't give readers a reason to stick around.
The middle: If you've hooked readers with the opening pages, do they follow through with that promise? Just because they're hooked doesn't mean we can step back and add a lot of description, backstory, and infodumping we cut out of the first few pages. Build off that opening hook and really make the reader invest in the characters and their story. Ask yourself...
- Does the chapter feel like it's going somewhere?
- Is there a mystery or story question the reader wants to see answered?
- Is there a suggestion or anticipation that something is about to go wrong?
- Is there humor or examples of the protagonist exhibiting likable or interesting qualities?
- Do the stakes escalate?
- Does this middle connect the opening goal with the core conflict "first step on the path" goal?
Things do happen unexpectedly, and some stories are about the protagonist getting a call that changes their whole world. If this is the case in your story, think about that opening and how the protagonist's day to day life lays the groundwork for that unexpected moment. If things change, perhaps contrast the life to the change. Pick a goal that will be the most affected by that surprise so the unexpected does more than just pop up unexpectedly.
Openings can be challenging, but the closer you begin to the moment when things change for your protagonist, the more likely it is to be the right opening.
Have you ever struggled with where to start? If so, did you start too soon or too late? Or totally in the wrong place? How long did it take you to find the right spot? Did you find the right spot?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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