Where the Story Begins
A lot of writers make the mistake of loading the beginning of their novel with information, such as back story, location description, character description and an inordinate amount of detail about common actions. Those same writers then wonder why agents and editors keep rejecting their work. The one word answer is “pacing.”
Of course, your readers need necessary information to understand the story, but they don’t need it in the first paragraph, or for that matter in the first chapter. Explanation bogs a story down and kills pacing. So where should a story begin?
At the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is the point at which everything changes for your protagonist. It’s that exact moment in time where their previously normal life shifts and thus begins the thrust of why there’s a story. Think about how many mysteries open with someone finding a body, or how many action adventures start with a theft or act of terror. The huge advantage to an opening that begins with a bang is the instant connection you can create between your reader and your protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to know that your heroine teaches deaf kids to read and rescues kittens to empathize with her if she comes home and find a strange, dead man on her kitchen floor.
That opening also has the reader begging for more. Who is the man? Why was he in the heroine’s apartment? Who killed him and why? Teasing the reader with the opening scene excites the reader and makes them jump into the book with both feet. Giving the reader a deluge of the angry boss, a spilled cup of coffee and the car that won’t start before she finally arrives home to find the body may lose you readership before you even get started with the story.
That doesn’t mean that a mean boss or spilled coffee can’t be relevant to the plot, but unless those things are THE inciting incident, then they need to fade into the background for the opening and wait to be pulled out of the writer’s hat when the relevance to the story is apparent.
Consider the two openings:
Sabrina stretched and eased out of bed, her eyes still burning from the late night at the office. Ever since Todd had taken over the department, late nights had become the norm, and no one was happy. She washed her face, pulled on sweat pants and headed downstairs, desperate for a cup of coffee. She had to be back in the office in an hour and without caffeine, she wouldn’t be able to contribute a single logical thought to anything.
She turned on the kitchen light and took one step backwards, her heart pounding in her chest. There was a dead man on her kitchen floor, and she had no idea who he was.
Sabrina turned on the kitchen light and took one step backwards, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn’t know the dead man on her kitchen floor.
Sure, it might be important to know that Sabrina’s boss is a jerk, that she’s been working late and that she has to be at work in an hour, but is it necessary in the first paragraph? Which opening catches your immediate attention? Which opening do you think will catch an agent or editor’s immediate attention?
Same thing with back story. Don’t info dump back story. Instead, tease the reader with the information. Let the reader know there’s more to tell but they’re going to have to read further to get it. Take two openings for example – both start with the inciting incident, but one has an info dump and one teases the reader and doesn’t slow the pacing:
Sabrina turned on the kitchen light and took one step backwards, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn’t know the dead man on her kitchen floor. It was just like ten years ago, when she was fifteen and found a dead man on the patio of the family home. That had started a two-year investigation of her family, even though they’d all sworn that they didn’t know who the man was or why he was at their home.
Sabrina turned on the kitchen light and took one step backwards, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn’t know the dead man on her kitchen floor. Not again, she thought as she reached for the phone. She hesitated for a second, knowing she should dial 911, but not ready for the ensuing fallout. Especially not without a cup of coffee.
The first example, while starting at the right place, then immediately launches into back story that isn’t necessary at the time. In fact, the back story kills the pacing and borders on author intrusion, as the heroine would hardly think in that manner.
The second example starts the same, but then teases the reader. The reader finds out two very important pieces of information about the heroine: one, this isn’t the first time a dead stranger has appeared in her home and two, it bothers her more that she can’t make coffee. Both of those items tease the reader into wanting to know more. What happened the first time she found a body? Why do strangers keep getting murdered in her house? What does the heroine do or what kind of person is she that she’s more concerned about her morning coffee?
For the best results, start with the point of change and make that change a good one. Leave the backstory for later, and only if it’s absolutely necessary.
© Jana DeLeon. All rights reserved.