StoryCraft: Five Principles for Beginnings

A little while back, I talked about getting your story started. That was a quick kind of intro to how to take your story ‘idea’ forward into something that can begin to take shape as an actual story. This post officially starts the StoryCraft series that covers all sorts of techniques and considerations for going the distance. You’ve got a story idea: now it’s time to write.

If you’re a writer, some of this information may be old hat, some of it may be new, all of it comes with examples or references to study on your own time. For readers: beware, all of this is a bit ‘man behind the curtain’ and I’d hate to rob you of the mystique that often surrounds storytellers.

And there is nothing more important to the success of a story than the opening pages. The ending is almost equally important (you want your reader to be satisfied when they finally reach ‘the end’ or they’ll be rather cross with you) but if you don’t deliver a proper opening to your story, well… no one is going to make it to the clever twists and turns you’re going to spend so much time crafting. So, let’s start at the beginning. Literally!

1. To prologue, or not to prologue

Prologues in a nutshell.

Ah, the prologue. In science fiction and fantasy especially, the prologue has a powerful draw to new writers. Unfortunately, it is often the downfall of many a hopeful author. This is largely because delivering a powerful prologue is hard.

Why, you’re wondering, should that be so? I’m happy to answer that. Prologues are inherently prone to delaying the reader in getting to the actual story. Too many writers use them to ‘set up’ not the characters and plot, but the world itself. It’s tempting to introduce your fantasy world, for example, by giving a bit of history either through blatant info-dumping (big no-no) or by delivering some historic event disconnected from the all important main characters.

And that’s the risky bit. A prologue needs to do more than all that. It is officially the opening chapter of your book, so it needs to deliver all the usual fare for a first chapter. That means that everything you’re about to read below has to happen in the prologue instead of the main story.

There’s no hard and fast rule to when you should or should not use a prologue. Almost every book that has one can have it cut and lose nothing. Even the esteemed George R.R. Martin, who puts about a 6-10k prologue in the beginning of each book of his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire could have the prologues cut from each book and you would never miss it. So what is he doing that you should be doing? Go read them.

Each of those prologues creates a sense of looming dread (winter, after all, is coming and the prologues focus on that), at times introduce a few new concepts but always while laying out some critical event that creates questions and makes promises about what’s coming in the story. Is there a trade off? Martin’s sales would suggest that he’s using the prologue well; but then again HBO really helped launch the series to stardom.

So remember this: mishandling the prologue can kill your book. Use it with caution, use it wisely, use it sparingly if at all.

2. Make your hook a fish hook

Mind you, you do have to put the hook in the water…

The ‘hook’ in any piece of fiction is not a single thing. It’s an amalgam that starts with a fantastic opening line, leads to an intriguing opening page, and lasts all the way through a gripping first chapter. You need more than just a little interest in your opening pages. The hook needs to have a barb on the end of it so the reader can’t spit it out once they’ve taken the bait.

Selling books is a lot like fishing. You dangle the book out there in the world, entice a reader with something shiny like a nice cover that smells like a good book with a great blurb, and then you have to handle them carefully to get them into your net once they bite. That’s why we call it a hook to begin with.

What makes for a good opening line? That’s going to depend on the book, but the central principle behind compelling readers to keep reading is simple enough: Questions with a capital ‘Q’.

Readers read because of questions. “Who am I reading about?” is generally the first, followed by, “Why am I reading about them?” and if you are successful with those two you may get them to ask, “What’s going on here?” If you can get them past those first three questions, you’ll finally arrive at the golden, “What happens next?”

But to do any of that, you have to shamelessly manipulate the reader into asking them and demanding an answer. And, if you’re particularly cruel (and clever), by withholding those answers for a bit. Never answer a reader’s questions without giving them more questions to chew on! They earn their answers by reading to the end and not before.

Now, at a glance, that first question makes it sound like you should open a book with a character description. That’s a frequent mistake of new writers. The question of “Who” isn’t as simple as a name and occupation. If you met a person on the street and they told you their name was Bob, and they are a chef, would you say that you know “who” they are? No, of course not. We know people when we learn about them, when we see their actions, have a conversation, or otherwise get a taste of who they are beneath the surface; not simply based on what they tell us.

So it is with your opening hook. Below, I’m going to get into this a bit more, but consider this: your opening lines need to give us a sense of who a character is even before we know what’s going on. Examine the following opening lines (these books do not exist; sorry.)

It was a Wednesday when my first boyfriend came back from the dead. Or, maybe it was a Thursday? Come to think of it, I didn’t work that day, so it must have been the weekend. In any case, I knew something was wrong when he called me ‘Marcy’. I’m not Marcy.

Honestly, I don’t know what that story is about, but we know a few things about not-Marcy. She’s a bit scattered, probably has a regular job, the return of her first boyfriend from the dead is not the thing that particularly concerns her, and since someone is rising from the dead we can pretty much gamble safely that this story is somewhere in the fantasy region of genre.

For the third time in as many days, Lana’s parents were trying to kill her. At this point, it was starting to get old.

Again, what do we know about Lana and the kind of person she is?

These opening lines do double duty, and yours should as well. They raise questions about what’s happening right now, while at the same time giving a taste of the character it’s happening to. If you can fit in a sense of time and place without detracting from those two most critical questions, do that as well. But remember: when and where are secondary questions. You have to answer them too, but if the reader hasn’t made it past “who is it” and “what’s happening to them right now” they may not care about the setting elements when – or if – they get to them.

How do you make sure that they do make it that far? Read on.

3. Without a character we love, it’s a documentary

Yes, it’s very pretty; but what happened there and who did it happen to?

You have almost certainly put a book down before because the opening pages read like a documentary.

The kingdom of Allusia is the smallest of seven on the continent of Mot. Without question, however, it is considered the most beautiful of the seven, with its striking ivory towers that seem to pierce the clouds that forever congregate over the ancient home of the Storm Makers, an ancient order of mages…

It may be interesting, and it may grab a handful of readers, but it will not have mass appeal. Not unless you’re raising some serious action right away that demands we find out what’s going on. Even then, you have to do it exceptionally well for it to work.

This is because as much as we’d like to imagine that readers enjoy our books for the clever plots and unique worlds that we work so hard on – which, they do, eventually – the more pressing reason they read is because of the characters at the center of those events, to whom things are happening, and who are the ones traveling to these fascinating locales and doing the amazing, heroic, or otherwise at least very interesting things.

It may seem obvious, but characters are the heart of every story. Even when that character is the narrator. Take Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. They almost always open with the Narrator in an omniscient third-person perspective, but we love them anyway because we love that narrator. It’s half of what we looked forward to when we knew another book was coming. (May Sir Pratchett never be forgot!)

In your opening hook, you had the task of making the reader curious about the character and what’s happening to them. Not just superficial stuff, but something intriguing. Something that hooks their attention and makes them want to know more about this person.

Giving them at least some of the answer to that is your very next task, and again remember that you’re not just giving them descriptions, or telling them who this character is. Show them. And you show with action.

Starting a story in media res, or in the middle of the action (a broad term which encompasses more than a fight or chase scene) is a popular technique for a reason. It works. It alerts the reader that something is already happening and they are late to this party. They need to catch up, find out who, what, why, when, where, and how. But they’ll only do that if they’re interested in the character.

So what makes us interested in a character, then? Why do some characters grab us, while others don’t? Three big reasons, among several, that you should have at the front of your brain, in order.

The first is sheer curiosity. Give a reader something unusual, whether that’s a strange reaction to an uncommon or even terrifying event (like Not-Marcy and her undead boyfriend), a creepy perspective on something, a clever quip, or a deep and engaging emotional reaction to an event we haven’t yet witnessed – whatever technique you use, use it to create a question and readers will keep reading just a bit further to see if they get the answer. While they’re searching, you can give them a bit more. This is the reeling of that line I alluded to in the fishing allegory, see?

Second, even if a character is something wholly out of the reader’s experience, they still need to be relatable. Does that mean we see something of ourselves in that character? Yes and no. It’s not that the reader needs to feel “that’s me in the mirror”, so much as they need to be able to commiserate on some level. Think about waiting in a long line, and how the shared condition of the people in front of and behind you – the impatience, the bad weather, the anticipation of whatever you’re willing to wait in line for – gives you a natural rapport with those people. Even anti-social people have had this experience (not necessarily waiting in line, but similar types of shared misery). Misery loves company! And we all understand it. We almost all know what it is to lose someone, to move place and feel uprooted, to celebrate an achievement and feel like we haven’t really earned it, to watch someone else celebrate when we feel we should have earned it, and so on. Those kinds of universal experiences can be shared across any genre, and that’s where you’ll find a real, visceral connection between readers and your character. You’ll have an opportunity to get that because:

Third, your character needs a problem. On page one, right away, they need to have a personal problem. In the post I mentioned in the intro, I talk about this process of bridging from a personal problem to the big Plot Problem, and this is one reason. The core plot of your story is going to need some setup, but just delivering setup for a chapter or two worth of events is boring. You don’t need or want your character just sitting at a cafe discussing the events that already happened so that you can move on with the plot, and you don’t want a series of dry, unemotional things happening in order to land on the real story.

Plot happens in the present! But it does need context. So, by focusing on a personal problem right away you have action, you have reactions by which we can judge the character, you can ply both of those to create a lot of questions about this character and who they are, and if you do it right your personal problem becomes a very special signifier for the end of the book. That discussion will come later on. But that leads me to the next point which is:

4. Flaky layers of buttery delicious plot

Okay, I admit that I have been watching The Great British Baking Show recently.

The books that get the most raving fans are the ones that are multi-layered. There is the main character’s personal problem, which can be complicated by the Plot Problem (capital “P’s” on purpose there), which can be further complicated by interpersonal problems, and all of them can be connected in ways that aren’t obvious at the beginning of the story. Manage this, bake a story with fluffy layers, and readers will praise your name and sing of your exploits to their children’s children.

Alright, they may not quite go that far, but they will be more likely to leave good reviews and tell their friends if in the end it feels like all the various threads were connected and necessary. It’s very difficult to blow a reader’s mind with disconnected threads that never quite feel like they were cohesive in the end, especially if they didn’t start out with a deep interest and emotional connection (positive or negative!) to your main character.

You start this right in the beginning, and it’s one of the things that can make the first chapter so challenging to write. The question to ask yourself is this: How is my character’s personal problem a symptom of the Plot Problem?

By thinking this through at the beginning, even if you are pantsing your book (writing it without planning it all out in an outline of some kind first) answering this question will steer you in the direction of an excellent storyline.

If the character’s boyfriend has recently risen from the dead, and we know that he/she/they isn’t particularly worried about the fact that it happened, so much as that he got their name wrong, what might that mean for a Plot Problem? How can it be connected? Maybe Not-Marcy is a budding necromancer who has worked her spell, she thought, with exacting skill – but there’s something happening in the land of the dead that she doesn’t yet know about that is having effects on her personal life. Those two problems bridge naturally into a story that gets bigger than this initial personal issue, and we also have some idea of what needs to happen by the end. She needs to resolve both the Plot Problem and the personal problem. And knowing that on page one will help you get there in a satisfying way.

This is what turns your first chapter into an official “Setup” chapter, while still focusing on something intimate and personal that can introduce your character, make the reader curious about them, sympathize with a problem they understand (even if it’s dressed up in something fantastical – lots of people understand the consternation of a significant other accidentally calling us by the wrong name, especially if that name belongs to an ex!), and make them want to know what happens next.

End your first chapter on a big hook, and you’re well on your way to delivering an opening that the reader won’t be able to walk away from. You need to get them out of the first chapter and at least to the all-important Inciting Incident, where the story really takes off.

5. Little twist, big twist

So you take a left, and then a right and then… you know what, just take the string.

There will be a series of posts later on that goes over varieties of story structure and how to use them to your advantage as a storyteller, but this post is concerned with landing the opening of your book effectively. To do that, you’ve got to get your reader to the first big twist in the story, and that is what we call the Inciting Incident. You get them there by delivering a series of little twists in each scene, each chapter, all of which serve to set up the Inciting Incident with meaningful context.

Context is the sum total of everything the reader knows about the characters, their world, and their problems when the Inciting Incident arrives. There’s a comparative example that I love for this.

A wizard comes to the village and tells our young farm boy that he must go on a quest to slay an evil king.

That is an Inciting Incident. In some circles, it’s called the “Call to Adventure.” Not every call is really to an adventure, though, so I personally like Inciting Incident better. That Incident sounds a bit… bland, right? We’ve read this story a hundred times. Do you care about the young farm boy? No? Try this on for size, then:

A young farm boy cares for his ailing sister in a small town where he is the only one who doesn’t want to send her to die in a ravine. Each day, he risks going to the woods to collect a rare and toxic bark that keeps her alive long enough that she can survive until the healer makes his yearly round. As she takes a turn for the worse, a wizard comes to the village and tells our young farm boy that he must go on a quest to slay an evil king.

Do you care what choice our Young Farm Boy makes now? I’d warrant you care a little more.

That’s why your inciting incident generally cannot fully arrive in chapter one. Without a personal problem to complicate, without emotional context at hand for the reader, without engendering sympathy and rapport between reader and character, your inciting incident won’t have the necessary weight to make the reader gasp and wonder how your character will react.

Resist the urge to deliver the Inciting Incident “as soon as possible.” Or at any rate, don’t take that at face value. What it should really say is “as soon as proper context is in place.”

So much of good storytelling is a process of setting up a reader’s expectations and then dashing them against the rocks with a twist that throws a wrench into everything they think they know to that point. It is shameless manipulation. Why should the Young Farm Boy have an ailing sister that he’s risking his own health to treat? So that when the wizard comes calling, he has to choose between his family and a higher calling to the greater good. If that choice hurts for him, it will hurt for the reader to see him struggle. And if we later find out that the actions of the evil king are, in fact, the source of his sister’s illness? All the better, because now he has multiple levels of motivation as the plot thickens. (More layers == more ‘thickness’, see?) And don’t forget, you’ve now introduced a character that promises to consistently complicate your story. Use her!

Later on, introduce an interpersonal conflict with someone who has a vested interest in the opposite outcome – killing the evil king will mean losing the chance to regain something that was lost to a companion character – and now you’ve introduced some moral grayness that makes for even more complication on yet another level.

Complications and tangles are the beating heart of entrancing, captivating fiction. If you can put every layer of the plot in conflict with the others and make the choices impossibly stressful for anyone to decide, you’ve done your job well and the average reader cannot help but want to know what happens. If you can introduce the main elements of those threads by the time you reach the Inciting Incident (which should generally come by around 10% or so of the book’s total length) you will have tricked your reader into swallowing the hook whole, and they will have to keep reading to find out.

The next StoryCraft entry will be about making sure they stay on the line at least until the middle of the book. (And help ensure that you don’t have a need to drag them through a ‘very bad book’!)