This article I wrote, which originally was published on Suite101, is for any of you who might be wondering about some of the key elements to keep in mind as you start your novel. It can also be a checklist for your novel's opening.
Getting a Story Under Way
In popular fiction, every story should start with some sort of Change to indicate to the reader that the story problem is beginning.
Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) says, “The function of your story’s beginning is to let your reader know there’s going to be a fight ... and that it’s the kind of fight that will interest him.”
Swain doesn’t mean a literal fight, but something the character is fighting for. The Inciting Incident is the Change that propels the hero to fight for his External Goal.
Most people, whether we like change or not, understand that when something changes, we can expect a new era or time of life to begin. The same principle applies to a reader—when he sees change in the story, he knows the character is going to embark on a new journey.
How to Start the Story
A story opening is usually comprised of:
(a) the main character
(b) the character’s ordinary world
(c) a sudden event that Changes the character’s world
(d) some sort of consequence of that Change.
Some openings will remove one or two of those and add them in later. For example, if you open in the villain’s point of view as he’s killing a victim, you only see the event that Changes the character’s world. The next chapter will introduce the main character, his ordinary world, and how the Change affects his world.
When to Start the Story
“Start on a day that’s different.”
“Start with an arrival.”
“Enter as late as possible.”
“Start with trouble.”
All these things add up to some event that signals Change for the hero. Change from his normal world, change that indicates trouble.
A writer will want to start the story as close to that Change as possible. Don’t spend too much time meandering over the hero’s normal world. Start with the event of Change, and make it apparent to the reader that it’s a deviation from the hero’s ordinary circumstances.
A book can start before the Change event, but the author must make sure he doesn’t start too far before the Change, or the opening will bore the reader.
A book can start right in the middle of the Change, but the author must make sure the reader is able to understand what’s going on and not be confused by being dumped into the middle of a situation.
A book can start after the Change, but the author must make sure the explanations that follow aren’t too long and extensive.
Contrary to what many writers think, a reader doesn’t need an explanation for why things are happening right at the opening.
If a writer opens with a striking, mostly self-explanatory scene, the reader will just go along for the ride and wait for explanations later.
Also, an aura of mystery is another way to hook the reader—they’ll keep reading to figure out why what happened just happened.
Make Sure the Character Faces Consequences
When the Change happens in the story, if the character has no consequences to the Change, there really isn’t a story.
The Change has to cause a chain reaction of other decisions the character makes, other consequences for those decisions. This is what propels the story.
The Change itself can be an external event, but everything that happens after that should be the character making decisions, finding unexpected consequences, making more decisions, finding more consequences.
Inciting Incident, existing situation, affected character, desire danger decision, where to open, existing state of affairs