Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writing Beginnings: Part 1

It's been a while since I've given out some writing advice, but recently I've been thinking a lot about beginnings. If there was one part of writing I would say I'm okay at, I would say it was beginnings. Not that I write a perfect beginning every time, it's just that "setting up a story" seems to be something my brain understands. Everything after that? Well, it gets a little shaky from there.

But I figured maybe I could share some of the ways I approach the beginning of a novel, some of the common threads in all beginnings, and also some of the pitfalls. Today I'll cover the plot aspect.

Part 1: Getting The Plot Moving
I've been told some writers get ideas for super awesome endings, and they have to write the rest of the book to get there, not really knowing what the rest might be. Well, I'm the opposite. I rarely know the climax of my books when I start. What I get is, essentially, a beginning. Something happens to my character that is like that first domino—it sets off a chain reaction.

This is a common denominator in every beginning ever written. Something changes for the main character. Some call it the Inciting Incident, but I'm not going to get too technical here. Look at any book and you will be able to find this change somewhere in the first, oh, 100 pages (though I personally think it should be WAY sooner than that, but I'm gonna be generous and consider genres with much bigger word counts).

I'll name a few that might ring a bell:

• A boy gets a curious letter from a giant.

• A boy gets a curious ring from an uncle.

• A girl falls down a rabbit hole.

• A group of siblings walk through a wardrobe into a strange world.

• A girl sees a beautiful, mysterious hot guy across the cafeteria.

• A girl watches her sister be picked for a horrible game.

Of course, the thing about that life-changing event is that a lot can be debated. I've seen actual fights over what the true Inciting Incident of Harry Potter is. Not even kidding. So maybe you don't agree with the changes I chose, but that's not really the point. The point is that there IS a change in your character's life—a significant one that puts them outside their comfort zone. Maybe an old lover shows up in town after ten years. Maybe an army burns down their home and kills their parents. Or maybe it's as simple as moving to a new place.

Stories are inherently a string of conflicts and choices, so when you're thinking of how or where to start a story, think of that moment where the dominos start toppling. That moment that takes your character from stasis to action.

Now, the changing moment is only half of the basic beginning plot equation. The other half is your character's choice. No beginning is complete until your character not just blindly reacts to the moment of change, but decides to DO something about it.

• Harry Potter decides to go to Hogwarts.

• Alice decides to eat/drink and goes through the door.

• Katniss decides to take Prim's place.

That decision, in my opinion, is the marker for the end of the beginning. It can happen a chapter in. It can happen 50 pages in. This is when you enter the middle territory, where your character goes through a series of try/fail as they live with their decision and try to accomplish their new goals. (This is usually where I stop writing and go, "Well crap, what now?" It never fails.)

Pitfalls in the plotting category are pretty straightforward—either you start too soon or too late. While it is important to establish the character's normal life pre-change, there is such a thing as too much. Of course, that depends on the story, and there isn't really a formula. But in TRANSPARENT, for example, I wrote a new first chapter because I started a little too late and had a bunch of backstory that could have been better explained in a scene than the way I did it. I've also started too early and had to cut first chapters.

You also have to be mindful of the gap between that changing moment and when your character makes their decision. Again, every story is different, but you can only drag out that choice so long. There's a point where it runs the risk of stagnating or frustrating the reader. On the other hand, a decision can be too hasty as well. Basically, it has to fit your story just right, and that can take some tweaking for maximum impact.

It sounds simple enough, right? Something big happens to your main character, and they make a choice about what to do. Well, let's not forget you have to do that while establishing setting, character, and backstory, not to mention laying the foundation for future conflict. SO EASY. Ha. I'll be talking about these issues throughout the rest of the week, so be sure to stay tuned!


  1. "Stories are inherently a string of conflicts and choices"

    YES. THIS. Cause and effect. This is absolutely the revelation that changed the way I write -- now I tell stories instead of just putting a bunch of scenes one after another. :P

  2. What perfect timing! I've just finished my WIP, but the beginning needs an overhaul. I'm going to remember this as I dive in.

  3. This is perfect timing for me, too. I'm just coming down off of my NaNo high, and looking at the beginning of another story--and at least two readers have said they're not sure I'm starting in the right place. I'll be rapt with attention this week!

  4. Also perfect timing for me. Working on my first chapter, again. I think the first chapter is, by far, the most important part of every story.

    You're lucky that you're good at it.

    Can't wait to read more helpful posts.

  5. "This is usually where I stop writing and go, "Well crap, what now?" It never fails." - I know that feeling very well. That's where I've been this week. Although I've plotted the basiscs of my story, I always get to somewhere between page 50 and 100, and forget how to write, how to add conflict, etc. It's crazy.

  6. I've never really thought about the choice/decision as being the end of the beginning... or, as it seems for some writers, the beginning of the end. Makes perfect sense; I just never thought about it.

  7. I'm a beginner too. My first nano, I flew through 50,000 words in a month, and it took me 2 more to write the last 10,000. My second nano ends with the sentence:

    "You'll pay for this...," they heard on the air as the General rode away.

    (Blaming exhaustion for that one)

    Looking forward to the other posts.

  8. I'm revising my novel again and in particular I want to rework the beginning. How did you know I needed this post?

  9. Ah, beginnings, one of the hardest parts of writing. Thanks for the advice! =3

  10. Awesome post, Natalie. That's a great way to simplify the steps to a good beginning. Definitely something I need to work on.

  11. Awesome post. Another one I have to bookmark! :)

    My problems always come with pacing. I tend to make things move much too slowly. I'm normally OK with getting the story moving; generally I have the inciting incident and decision within a chapter or two. But pacing the middle and figuring out a climax...oy.

    I just read the latest issue of Writer's Digest and they have a whole feature on story mapping. It was so detailed it was almost overwhelming :P This novel writing is so much more complicated than most people think!

  12. love the post. it was really clear and to the point. i'm about to start a new project so it was super helpful! (definitely will have to bookmark this post).

  13. I have the same (problem? issue?) process as you. I'm good at beginnings, and then I get to the middle and have no idea where to go next. I'm still stuck there. I can write the beginning, and the end, but the middle always escapes me :(

  14. Terrific post!

    I started off with an earthquake, because it was vital for one of my characters to make a discovery... which would end up turning him into the antagonist.