In the beginning . . .

By Joe Moore

They say that the most important part of any novel is the beginning. Arguably, it’s the most re-worked portion. I know it seems like I rewrite the first chapter a hundred times before I’m done. But no matter what the story is about, I believe there are a few critical elements that should be present to create a strong beginning. Here they are.

You should always start by showing your hero as a central focal point. Don’t worry too much about detailed descriptions on the surroundings, the weather, and the setting. That can come a page or so later. Just zero in on the protagonist’s state of being.

Firmly establish the situation the protagonist is in. Is she relaxed, nervous, happy, or angry? Consider making the first scene a mirror of what’s to come so that the reader knows right from the get-go what type of person the protagonist is. For instance, if the hero will have to deal with killing someone later in the story, have her see a report of a murder on the news or in the paper and react to it. Is she repulsed by the taking of another’s life or does she think the person on the news got what he had coming? It should be like watching a preview of a coming attraction at the movies. You know what to expect from the character when you get to the meat of the story. So let the opening scene in some way reflect the overall conflict in the book and perhaps specifically predict or foreshadow events to come. Allow the first scene to set the tone for the rest of the story.

Next, give the protagonist something to do that is a primary “tag” to identifying their make-up, their inner core beliefs. You only need one, but it should be a mark of their character that will play a role later. As an example, if the protagonist is able to step in and calm an argument between two co-workers, and do it in a logical manner, it’s a tag that they can solve bigger conflicts later and that their mind works well at problem-solving.

Now comes a vital element in the beginning sequence of any story. You must establish that the protagonist has something important to lose. Conflict must be established from the very first scene. It doesn’t matter what kind of conflict or what’s at stake, but it must be something important to the protagonist. Something the hero cares about has to be threatened. Although some books start with a big scene, perhaps with violence or personal danger, the thing that’s at stake for the protagonist can be as small and personal as forgetting to send a birthday card or neglecting to tell her daughter that she loves her. This shows she has feelings and emotions that are on a basic human level and can be related to by the reader. Even if the big opening scene is a threat on the protagonist’s life, the real thing that’s at stake must be a loss from within her heart, her soul.

Starting with something as big as a threat on her life usually doesn’t work as well because the reader hasn’t had time to get to know the hero and there’s no reason at this early stage to care. Action by itself does nothing to increase the concern the reader has for the protagonist. But regretting that last, missed goodbye sure does. It sets up a relationship between the hero and the reader—a connection of human understanding and emotion that helps the reader care about the character later.

If your book is science fiction or fantasy, it’s a good idea to establish the rules of the road as soon as possible. If the rules say that people can become invisible, go ahead and establish that real quick. The reader must know the rules. Don’t wait until halfway through the book to decide the antagonist can read minds. We need to know about the mind reading thing right away.

Another element that should be present in or near the beginning of your book is the story question. You might think that the story question deals with the protagonist defeating the antagonist. That’s really a plot issue. The story question is much deeper than that and usually deals with an inner want and need of the main character. For instance, in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Agent Clarice Starling has to find the killer known as Buffalo Bill. But what’s the story question? Can Clarice overcome the childhood trauma she experienced when her policeman father was murdered, then having to deal with living on her uncle’s farm and listening to the terrible screams of the sheep being slaughtered. The story question is answered at the end of the book when Dr. Lecter writes Starling a letter asking her if the lambs have stopped screaming. In the final scene Starling is sleeping quietly and peacefully at a friend’s vacation house at the Maryland seashore. The story question has been resolved.

You should also establish during the beginning of the book your character’s wants and needs. Asking the story question can reflect on what the protagonist wants and what she needs. Clarice wants to catch the killer but she needs to find internal peace from her childhood demons.

Lastly, you should begin your book by establishing your voice and setting the tone and pace of the story. The mood must be nailed down from page one. Your opening scene sets up all of these elements and lets the reader know what to expect from there on out. At this point, you are establishing a contract with your reader to deliver a story that maintains a tone, fulfills their preliminary expectations, and resolves all questions amicably.

What other elements do you think must be present in the beginning to keep your reader turning the pages? Do you always know the story question before you write the beginning of your book? Have you ever bought a book only to find that the author didn’t live up to the contract established in the beginning?

7 thoughts on “In the beginning . . .

  1. Great information and reminders about how to give a story a solid kick-off, Joe. Sometimes I read thrillers that start off with an event to a secondary character, and then introduce the main character in a later chapter. These are typically thrillers that have shifting POVs. In some cases, they start with a crime set in the past that will ultimately threaten the main character. What do you think of those?

  2. Thanks, Jim. I agree. I’m not all that interested in a book that “gets going” on page 50. It has to start on page one, paragraph one, sentence one. Or if possible, before that. 🙂

    Kathryn, Clive Cussler made that technique into a art form. I don’t have a problem with it at all. As a matter of fact, my newly completed thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, does just that–start with an historical chapter and then intro the progat. But my heroine walks onto center stage in sentence one of chapter 2. And from there on out, she’s the star.

  3. Excellent points, Joe. Regarding opening scenes, Christopher Vogler writes: “What is the character doing at the moment of entrance? The character’s first action is a wonderful opportunity to speak volumes about his attitude, emotional state, background, strengths, and problems.” Too often writers open up their story telling us about everything but what we really want to know. Who is this character? What world are we entering? Where is the conflict? And how fast can you get us into that character’s world?

  4. Mark, your additional advice is exactly right. Thanks for sharing.

    Martha, thank you for stopping by TKZ. I’m glad my tips have value for you and your writing.

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