How do you start a story? Do readers expect a nice big grabber scene? And at what point does the plot kick in?
I said in my last post, Fiction Myths, that we should be wary of the oft-repeated admonition that the story should begin as soon as possible. The thought apparently driving this bit of advice is that readers are impatient. They want conflict, a reason to turn pages–something, perhaps, to worry about.
Fair enough. But getting your plot fully engaged on page 6 isn’t the way to do it. Not that we have the luxury these days of beginning a novel with a meandering tour of the village or setting out on an epic journey, first provisioning at the local market.
So how do you start a story?
The question of how to begin is grounded in the shape of story. From screenwriting comes the classic shape of the three act structure, pierced in the middle by the mid-point scene (thus actually creating four sections of the story.) For a great discussion of this structure, see Larry Brooks, Story Engineering. Don’t leave home–don’t start a novel–without a thorough understanding of this basic blueprint! Within this context of story architecture, you will find the crucial turning points, Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2.
Plot Point One
It is at PP1 where your plot launches the character down her path in a way that changes everything. It is the point where the protagonist takes up the gauntlet in full knowledge of what is at stake for her. You might now introduce a partial glimpse of the forces arrayed against her. Your main character is now determined to take action. Perhaps she has no choice. (This point may be proceeded by the inciting incident. The inciting incident brings the potential of a story on stage. The gunslinger arrives in town, the old man dies leaving all his money to his young mistress. The main character is not yet engaged fully. That happens at PP1.)
The PP1 scene typically occurs about one quarter of the way in. It can be said to be the end of Act One. A storyteller has some leeway here. Use the elements of classic structure in service to your story. These aren’t iron clad rules. (Yet, the closer you can come to the ideal one-quarter point, the more the audience will, unconsciously, recognize the familiar territory, the deliciously familiar story-telling turning point.)
Function of beginnings
The purpose of beginnings is show us the characters and their life situation (including the milieu in sf/f) in a way that brings the reader to care about the action to come. We want to know what’s at stake for the major character; what they want–or if they don’t know that yet–what they value. We learn why the desire or value is held so dear: we are introduced to the inner world of the character. Not usually through flashbacks, but through real-time actions dramatized in scenes. We see the forces of antagonism, or their shadows on the wall. This is all set up for PP1. When the private detective takes the case against his better judgment, when the major character is kicked out of the house, when the disgraced officer is given one last chance to redeem himself.
So how do we keep the reader turning pages in Act One? Through bridging conflict. Bridging conflict is any conflict that is not the main story conflict. It can be used any time your main conflict must retire to the wings for a beat or three. It is often used in subplots to carry us along until we return to the main stream. But at the start of a story, it is why we keep turning the pages.
An example: At the beginning of Naomi Novik’s Victory of Eagles, Captain Lawrence is disgraced, in irons in the brig. He is awaiting execution. His faithful dragon, Temeraire, is kept in the dark about his beloved captain’s fate. Now, the plot can’t begin yet, because we haven’t seen Lawrence suffer enough, we haven’t had time to become enraged by his treatment. Furthermore, the plot when it bursts open will be a hell burner, and it requires some set up. What does Novik do to bring us to PP1? She has Temeraire under threat of losing his nice big cave.
That’s it. A morose dragon who is wallowing in self-pity is now going to be summarily ejected from a miserable hovel of a cave that he has spent some time digging out to make it more comfortable while he mopes. I’m not kidding, this was her plan for getting us a few chapters in. And it works brilliantly. Instead of milking Temeraire’s anxiety, Novik has him acting out his terrors by self-righteously protecting a few feet of mud and rock. We are outraged by the obnoxious interloper and rooting like hell for our favorite dragon. Meanwhile Lawrence undergoes one humiliation after the next while waiting to be hanged. Then at PP1 Napoleon invades England. Lawrence and Temeraire are dragooned into emergency service. By the time the French land on English shores, the two main characters are on the path to a dramatic struggle for redemption.
Learning to care
The first part of your novel, therefore, is devoted to making the upcoming conflict meaningful. To make the stakes matter to the reader, not just to the character. To make us care. So that at PP1 we feel a turn in the gut, a hope, perhaps even a desperate one, that things will work out.
That’s why grabber scenes as openers often fall flat. They may be loaded with conflict and violence, but frankly, we don’t give a damn. We don’t know the characters. Death and betrayal are all very well, but they are common. They aren’t meaningful to us unless we know a bit about who it happens to.
Take the book I’m reading at the moment. Please, take it. It’s by one of my favorite fantasy authors. But he started his latest book with a big grabber scene where the major character nearly dies. Did I care? Not at all. Then he falls back to some painfully slow stuff, so I am still annoyingly disengaged from his story, and I’m on page 40! Listen up. Readers are the most picky, demanding, and thin-skinned of people. They usually see through the fakery and formulas, especially that grabber scene that was meant to signal an action-packed story. They respond by saying “I just couldn’t get into it.”
Which is why openings of novels are so important. Because if the reader puts your book aside at page 40, they’re not going to recommend your book to anyone else. And they’ll remember you let them down.