Monday, January 9, 2012

The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Openings are critical to get someone to read your book, but how do you know where to start? The old "start with the action" has frustrated many a writer due to its ambiguity, and even when you think you've done it all correctly, beta readers can still feel the opening isn't grabbing them. The sheer amount of "is this opening working?" submissions I get in Real Life Diagnostics is testament to that. Openings are hard, especially if you're not sure if you're starting in the right place.

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:
You want to hit the basic overview to determine what you're writing about. If you start with description, internalization, action, etc. For example, if I described The Shifter, I'd say it opens with Nya musing on the difficulty of stealing eggs vs. chickens, then getting caught stealing those eggs.

State the goal in the opening scene:
Even though this scene may not have anything to do with your core conflict, your protagonist is trying to do something. For Nya, her goal is: Steal eggs for breakfast.

State your stakes:
No matter how small the goal, there's a consequence in failing. That's what makes readers want to keep reading. For Nya, it's getting caught stealing eggs.

Describe in one paragraph or less what happens next, up until the last page or two:
Keep it short to force yourself to really look at what's going on in that scene. For Nya, it's that she tries to talk her way out of the egg theft. 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:
Look at the event that's going to transition into the next scene or chapter. The "oh no" moment that will hook the reader. For Nya, it's that she gets caught shifting pain by people who will definitely expose her secret.

Now that you know the pieces of your own opening, step back and look at the story as a whole:

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. It's okay to do both the internal and external conflicts here if you want. For The Shifter, it's Nya trying to save her missing sister, and having to decide how far she's willing to go to do that.

2. When is the first moment where something happens to bring your protagonist into this core conflict? (your inciting event)
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. That moment when they made a choice or acted in a way that sets them on the plot path. For The Shifter, it's when Nya gets caught using her shifting ability.

3. What's happening when they trigger the moment when they step onto the plot path?
Stories typically start "in the real world" of your protagonist's life, so odds are your protagonist will be doing something normal that somehow doesn't go as it usually does. What normal part of their life are they doing when this big plot path moment occurs? In The Shifter, Nya is stealing food to survive.

4. How does this event connect to your core conflict?
There's a reason this moment puts your protagonist on that plot path. You can draw out a step by step list that shows how this event leads to the end of the book. 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 are the very people involved in her sister's disappearance.

Next, look at your opening analysis:

Is your opening the same as #2?
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 to care about what's happening. (even if it's exciting).

If no...

Try rewriting the opening scene so it reflects the events in #2.
If this scene happens later is the story, consider starting the book there, even if you have to cut. (that information can always be moved)

If yes, but something still not working...

Look back at your opening analysis.
Is there anything there you didn't answer, or answered weakly? If so, this is likely the problem. If 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? Trying making them active. Let them do something.

Opening scene goal:
Is this goal apparent from the first page, or is it a goal that actually appears later in the scene or chapter? Sometimes the protagonist is doing something unrelated at the start to set the scene, then the story gives them something to do several pages in, delaying the actual start of the book. Try putting the goal in right from the start and have it clear what the protagonist is doing.

Opening scene stakes:
Even if it's clear what your protagonist is doing, if no one cares if they succeed or not it's not very interesting. Are your stakes worth worrying about? Even a mundane scene can have meaningful stakes if the protagonist cares enough about the outcome. Not buying milk when you know it'll cause a huge fight with your spouse matters, even if it's just about milk. 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 your opening pages, are you following through with that promise? Just because you hooked them doesn't mean you can now step back and do all that description, backstory, and infodumping you cut out of the first few pages. You want to build off that hook and really make the reader invest in your 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 that something is going to go wrong?
  • Is there humor or examples of your 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?
The last few pages:
The end of a scene is the payoff for reading that scene. Is the final hook something that the scene or chapter has been building toward? This is often the culprit in a "something's off" opening that starts where it should. The event is right, but the author is unsure how to get the protagonist from their day to day life to that plot event. You might consider looking at when your protagonist encounters that event, and seeing if they got there by their own actions or if it suddenly happened to them.

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 big 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 ambiguous, and in some stories it's hard to know exactly where they start. But the closer you begin to the moment when things change for your protagonist, the faster you can get to the good stuff.

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?


  1. What timing! Yes, I've struggled big time with where to start. I thought I had it, but now I'm not so sure.

    I think I struggle most with deciding between the external and internal conflicts. Initially, I opened my MG WIP very close to the inciting incident for the external conflict. I participated in an online workshop where I got to show the beginning to an editor, and she said things were happening too fast, before she got a chance to care about the MC. I had to agree.

    Now I am starting where the internal conflict begins - the MC's best friend (and really only friend) moves away, and this shatters the MC. In order for her to succeed with the external conflict, she needs to get over this and believe in herself.

    This first chapter is a bit flat so far. I think I just need to keep writing through it to find the spark. And I'll work through the questions you have here and see if I DID find the right spot to start.

    Thank you!!

    -- Amy

  2. This is timely for me too! Boy am I struggling with this! I started with some action that did get people intrigued, but after living with it for a long while, I've realized that it just doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the novel. It's a throwaway dramatic entrance. My inciting incident is when my heroine accidentally wishes herself back in time (it's a time-travel romance), but I think if I start right with the wishing, no one would really care yet. She's at a reenactment ball that is not being taken seriously by most of the attendees and she's feeling disappointed and dorky. So I guess I'm starting with her internal conflict which directly leads to her making the wish... I still don't know if it's the right spot, but it's where I am right now. This post will definitely help me analyze it more, thanks!

  3. Great post. Mine is the second problem; figuring how to connect my terrific opening to the story's middle. It's taking a little too long to get there.

  4. I usually start too late...but I don't usually know that until I finish the book and am working on revisions. By then, I really know what my core conflict is and where everything's going, which makes it possible to get the beginning right. I love the flow chart!

  5. Angela, mine is the same sort of thing. My MC made a wish in the first chapter initially, and, yeah - who cares at that point?? I'm hoping stepping back a bit gives us a little more time to get to know her so we'll care when she wishes herself away...
    Here's hoping our wishes work out better this time! ;-)

  6. Love this! I stuggle with where to start...I'm getting closer with each book, but this will help me nail it, first time, and save lots of time!

    Thanks so much.

  7. Khanada, that's not an uncommon problem actually. We have "start with the action" drilled into our heads, and start too soon without giving readers a chance to get to know and care before things get crazy. Starting with the internal conflict can work well, as that's the start of the protag's emotional arc. It'll also connect to the external goal in some way to help tie the story together. Good luck with that opening!

    Angelaaquarles, I agree, starting with the wish will probably feels too rushed. Starting with why she makes the wish sounds like the right spot to me. :)

    Chicory, have you tried looking at both the internal and external conflicts? Sometimes you can use the character arcs to bridge those gaps.

    MK, beginnings often change after you see the end :) Probably better too late than too early though. Not as much writing to cut out, hehe.

    Laura, most welcome!

  8. Hmmm... I may have to think about that one.

    My problem is that I'm writing a mystery with a ton of suspects, and I'm trying to introduce a lot of (I was going to say people, but creatures would be more appropriate) characters, along with their clashing motivations.

    I think I'm getting the hang if it, but re-writing these opening chapters feels like it's taken longer than writing the whole first half of the book on my original go-round. Oh how I do hate re-writes, let me count the ways!

  9. Great tips! Writing the beginning is often the hardest part of any story whether it is flash fiction or a novel.

    I have had success starting my stories with a hook an ending the first chapter with the inciting incident. My first chapters are very short. I include just enough info for readers to get to know the protagonist before the character's life changes completely.

  10. This is timely. I'm restarting my draft so I can write scene by scene and get it right this time.

    However, I'm still not sure how to deliver the conflict in the first scene. (You had seen the earlier version of this scene). I have the narrator (Bryan) and his father exchanging a few jabs before the co-protagonist (Finn) stumbles into the scene. However, I'm not sure how to handle the Bryan vs. Dad conflict and the Bryan vs. Finn conflict, considering that the latter is the core of the story.

    What Dad and Bryan were arguing over was the fact that despite being divorced, Dad sleeps with Mom every time he visits, and Bryan's afraid this might weird off the exchange student. Problem is, I'm not sure how to shape this into a first scene conflict that unfolds realistically--and not have the readers expect that Bryan vs. Dad will be a main conflict.

    Should I just scrap the Dad altogether and just have Bryan's Mom pick Finn up? But I'll have to think up a new conflict.

    Help, please?

  11. Oh, sorry for rambling on, but I do know the end result for the scene. I want Bryan to be both intrigued by Finn yet uncertain that they'll be able to form a friendship. I don't want him to get all angry, or that might blow away audience sympathy. I want Bryan want to help Finn.

    So perhaps end with Bryan unsure whatever he wants to figuratively strangle Finn? How would I achieve that result? Finn is an extremely intoverted person. What remark would make the scene end in disaster?

    Talking this out like this helps me.

  12. I'm bookmarking this post for when I go back to my YA fantasy. The beginning in that one needs so much work to set it at the right point.

  13. Yesterday I watched "Die Hard" twice. It was so well plotted, for sure! His #2 was when he decided to take that plane to see his wife, after six months apart. Right? (He "went left," to San Francisco, instead of "going right," and staying in NY.) We needed the time, short as it was, when he was with his wife before the Big Conflict began.

    Thanks for another great post! This blog site is so helpful!!

  14. This was great advice! Reading through the analysis questions, I'm actually surprised (and glad) to say that my wip is probably starting in the right place.

  15. Chicoy, that happens more often than you'd think :) Actually, if it's a mystery you're opening is fairly easy. From what my mystery friends tell me, the body needs to show up in the first chapter. (if it's not a murder mystery, then naturally that changes). Perhaps introduce your protag first, then let the other characters come is as your protag discovers them.

    Haley, sounds good to me :)

    C0, you might try seeing how the Bryan vs Finn conflict is affected by the Dad conflict at the start. Use the Dad one as the bridge to help get Bryan to the core conflict. Maybe Bryan is scared/embarrassed over what might happen when Dad spends the night and this makes him act a certain way toward Finn.

    If Bryan has his own conflict with Finn that's separate, you might want to just scrap Dad and start with Mom at the airport. The Dad issue could be something that happens later to make the Bryan/Finn conflict worse.

    What issue does Bryan have about Finn coming to live with them? That's probably going to drive that opening scene. His worst fear could be something he's worrying about at the end of the chapter. It doesn't have to happen if that doesn't fit the story, but he can worry it will, and see all kinds of hints as to why it might in Finn. He can be wrong, and discovering that might be what helps drive the story moving on.

    Talking scenes out helps me too :) I spent hours on the phone with my crit partners.

    Jaleh, good luck!

    Patti, exactly. That's such a great example of the "normal world" right before things go crazy. And thanks!

    Laura, oh good!

  16. Excellent, analytical article - thank you! I just finished writing my first novel, a literary thriller titled Opium, and it took multiple drafts and mega guidance from my agent, Jenny Bent, for me to find the right opening scene. Opium starts with the protagonist - an investment banker who goes to Burma to raise a fund - trying to flee the nation after she realizes the dangerous predicament she's gotten herself and her fiance into. I tried starting at the linear beginning of the story, but the stakes weren't high enough; and at different points within, which gave away too much or was confusing; but when we hit upon the current opening, it suddenly flowed like honey. Or at least Jenny and I think so! Next stop, publisher submissions, gulp. Fingers and eyes crossed.

  17. Ashi, great story! I bet a lot of writers have gone through that same process to find their right opening (I know I have). And when you do find it, it does flow :) Best of luck with yours, and I hope it sells quickly.