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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Sunday, March 23, 2008


By 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.

Audioslave? Nope.

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?”

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At 7:24 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Norah, wow. What a beginning!

I had to think long and hard about that ordinary world. In the end I went back and added a prologue to my story; I still feel like it has a hook, but it sets up both the heroine's goals and motivations, and the entire reason for a trilogy, should I write one.

I feel like 90% of the writing articles I read say the beginning should just explode with action! It's nice to hear you can take a moment to introduce characters.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great beginning to your book, Norah! A good reminder to set up that ordinary world and make us care about the characters before they are shoved out of their element...

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I'm a firm believer in starting with a firm foundation and then having everything escalate throughout the book. There's an old wive's tale that a frog can survive in a pot of boiling water, but you have to start out with the water cold, and gradually raise the temperature.

I don't need to be breathless with an over-the-top action opening if I don't know who the characters are or why I should care.

(comment on your opener -- that first sentence is a long one, with 4 proper names to digest.)

At 8:51 AM, Blogger doglady said...

I have to agree with Gillian. So many articles harp about snatching the reader in by the hair of the head and not giving them a chance to breathe until the end of the book. I am one of those "Why should I care about these people?" readers. The opening of my book has been praised and ripped alternately for taking the time to show you who the characters are by their behavior on an outing that neither wanted to take. You find out what is going on in their heads, what they think about each other, and THEN they fall into a giant hole in the ground together.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Thanks, Gillian! And yeah, it almost feels like sacrilege to suggest you don't have to leap right out there with a literal explosion on page 1. But I do think we need to have at least a glimpse of who these people are before the inciting incident propels them toward change as we start hitting them with progressive complications to test and reveal their character. That pre-inciting incident bit need not be long. In fact, it shouldn't be over long. You don't want to delay the start of the story unduly. And I do think something compelling needs to be happening. Not to say it need to be action necessarily, but it needs to be dramatic.

BTW, backing up to set up your potential trilogy with a short prologue sounds like an excellent idea. Again, contest judges can be biased against prologues (just as they can about openings that dont' explode), but from talking with other pubbed authors about their experiences, I don't think that prejudice extends to editors. Some almost always use prologues, while others almost never do. The test is, is it effective? Does it belong there versus feeling grafted on? IMO, if it's effective, it absolutely should be there.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I definitely want to know what makes Aiden tick. You hooked me!

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Thanks, Theresa! That's it exactly! Make us care about the character before he's shoved out of his ordinary world. Would we feel so strongly for the hobbit who goes off on a dangerous quest if we hadn't seen him in his small, placid shire in Middle Earth? :-)

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Terry Odell said:
"I don't need to be breathless with an over-the-top action opening if I don't know who the characters are or why I should care."

Exactly! Why should I care? In a similar vein, although I LOVE a passionate love scene, if it comes before I'm sufficiently invested in the characters or if they don't have enough at stake, it leaves me cold.

As for my opening line, I must be taking a page out of Carl Hiaasen's books. He's got it down to a formula. Date, time, character's name, city, situation. Interestingly, he often opens with a character whose only use is to illuminate something for us from another angle, and he/she is never seen again. Of course, I'd have to Carl Hiaasen to get away with that. In this genre, try introducing someone first who is NOT the hero or heroine and see how quickly you get swatted. :-)

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Doglady said:
"The opening of my book has been praised and ripped alternately for taking the time to show you who the characters are by their behavior on an outing that neither wanted to take."

Frustrating business, huh? I think much depends on how long that part is. On the face of it, I would think it would be VERY useful to show these two in a situation where it's clear they are like oil and water. Then trap them in a situation where they will have to work together. [Evil laugh]

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

If's it's not suspense, I prefer reading--and writing--stories that take a minute to ground me in the setting and with the characters. But it has to be done in an active way, not a boring, telling description of who, what, when, where, and how.

I think the reason folks believe it's either action or "setting the scene" is because they mistakenly believe the latter takes a lot of pages/chapters/words. A really skilled writer can do it in a few sentences. That's a goal I can live with.

But your story, Norah, is inviting. What kind of guy hums but then pushes in a door and overpowers the chief of police? And why does he know so much about the chief's wife and child? Speaking of which, what's going on between chief and said family because he seems to be a bit out of touch?

Those are the questions your beginning brings to my reader's mind.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

YES, Patricia! I should have recruited you to write this blog! It doesn't have to be either/or (an "exciting" action scene or a "boring" set up). Setting the scene CAN be done economically and in an interesting way. I love it when you see the hero in his world, the heroine in her world, but you can also see how those worlds are about to collide.

And YES! on the questions my opening raised for you. It's exactly what I want the reader to wonder. My hero is a vampire who hunts rogue vampires and eliminates them. This opening scene is a follow-up to a previous story in which the police chief shows himself to be an abuser and a bully who has misused his power and authority to stalk his wife. Aiden has been given the job of re-educating the Chief so his wife and daughter can stop running. My hero is a dangerous man who is accustomed to violence, which I try to show by his casual, downright cheerful anticipation of giving the Chief an attitude adjustment. No one is going to die, or even be seriously harmed, but they are going to see the error of their ways. (VBG)

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Great opening, Norah. I am soooooo eager for another Norah Wilson book.

BTW, backing up to set up your potential trilogy with a short prologue sounds like an excellent idea.

Hey, this is exactly what I did! I have a new 4 book contract with Harlequin Mills & Boon. I proposed a trilogy. Each book will start with the same incident, but from different points of view.

At 12:35 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Diane, Hurray and Congratulations!!! :)

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

mo h said:
"I definitely want to know what makes Aiden tick. You hooked me!"

Omigosh, thanks! Where do I send the cheque? :-)

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane said:
"Great opening, Norah. I am soooooo eager for another Norah Wilson book."

Thanks, Diane! I'm pretty eager for that, too!

Awesome on the 4-book contract, and tres, tres cool having each book starting with the same incident but a different POV. That blows me away!

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Fabulous beginning, Norah. The song in the head, the crick in the neck -- all that makes us relate to the character immediately. I'm definitely hooked.

You wrote: "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."

This is THE key, to me, especially in the era of the action movie. If you're part of the demographic that's excited about explosions and chase scenes, which are you more likely to head for -- the bookstore or the theater? Airplanes used to be the last bastion of books, but with portable DVD players, that's no longer the case.

What a book can do that a movie can't is to put you inside the head of the character. That's probably why first-person is the defacto POV for commercial fiction right now. The cinematic equivalent is the voice-over narrator, and I think it pulls you out of the story to have both the visual and the narration. It's a clear sign that you're watching a movie. Whereas with a book, 1st person POV enters the brain seamlessly.

I went off on a tangent, but the main thing I wanted to say (and it's what you're saying) is that your writing voice is more important in the beginning of your book than anyplace else. A confident, unique voice will hook the reader without explosions, without knowing the characters yet, without knowing what the inciting incident is.
I gotta quit. I could yammer on about this forever.

Diane: Congrats again on your fat contract, and I love that prologue idea. Really clever.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

LOL, Esri! You can go off on a tangent any time. I always look forward to your insights, which are never run-of-the-mill.

And yes, VOICE! That's what I'm talking 'bout. And getting into the character's skin and really letting your reader experience the story with him/her.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Congrats, Diane!

Esri is right. I think that's why I enjoy books. I like knowing what makes other folks tick.

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Barbara Phinney said...

Norah, great article. We all sweat out those first few lines, and I love that you say we should focus on character. Aiden's not just showing one dimension, but several, all in the space of a few paragraphs.
Barbara Phinney


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