This article, written by Harper St. George, is from the September 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
I recently finished writing my 18th book. To some that makes me a baby writer, but to others it’s seasoned writer territory. Wherever you fall on that scale, I think we can all agree that by book 18 you’ve probably figured out the basic structure of a book and reader expectations for your genre. That doesn’t mean you won’t run into issues while writing.
My issue with book 18 was that I could not find the start of the story. It’s the only book I’ve written where I literally moved the first three chapters around multiple times and ended up with three different prologues. Usually, I feel my way through the story as I go along, writing scenes in order, and have the most basic plotting skills because plotting in detail simply doesn’t work for me. Clearly, pantsing didn’t work for me this time, so I went searching for answers.
How do writers know where to start a story? Are there guidelines that can help us find our way when we’re lost at the beginning? I reached out for advice from authors to help answer those questions so that plotters and pantsers alike can have a tool to make their writing a little faster.
Writing the first draft
Fiction writer and editor Robin Patchen offers this advice: “When authors I work with struggle here, I suggest they find the inciting incident and then go back just enough to introduce the character and give us a hint about his internal goal. In order to do this, we must show the flaw the character will need to overcome in order to achieve his external goal.”
There are several definitions for inciting incident, but, in general, it’s the moment in the story that takes the character out of their ordinary life and puts the story into motion. It’s the spark that ignites the story and sets the character on their journey.
Here’s an example from Patchen: “In my release this fall, I introduce the hero sitting at his desk in his home office at 9 o’clock on a Friday night. He’s interrupted by his brother, who’s staying with him for a few days and challenges him on why he’s working. We get the sense that Sam works all the time, that he has a whole lot of money, and that he is unhappy with his life. (The flaw that’s ruining his life is that he’s so afraid of rejection that he won’t connect with anybody, even though what he desires more than anything is connection.) His brother tells him that he used to work all the time and then learned to prioritize his family, to which Sam snaps, ‘I don't have one of those.’ And then the doorbell rings, and his long-lost love is on the doorstep.”
Romance author Kate Freiman has a similar suggestion. “Advice I heard early on, probably from an editor, was to start the story at the moment things change for the protagonist and fill in the backstory gradually later.”
This is great for a romance novel, but how do authors handle openings outside of romance? It turns out that, while the examples differ, the core advice is similar. Troy Lambert, who writes in various genres under different pen names, says, “The essential idea for me is usually ordinary world, beat, inciting incident, beat, and then set the sleuth on the path.”
Mystery author Neil Plakcy suggests starting before the inciting incident and goes a step further in advising us to avoid the tropes of your genre in the opening. “For fiction, your start should introduce the protagonist and give some sense of his/her situation without diving too deep into the common tropes. While it’s a trope in cozy mystery that a protagonist is starting over again after a bad breakup/job loss/etc., and moving to the charming town where her grandmother/aunt/godmother has left her a fudge shop/knitting store/strange bequest, I wouldn’t begin on the road. I’d start just before the action of the plot begins.”
Fantasy and historical fiction writer Meredith Rose also starts a little before the inciting incident. “I think of it as more how instead of where. I like my opening chapter to show something about where my protagonist is in her life—what her current situation is, struggles, emotional needs—maybe not in detail, but at least a hint. I want to have the opening give the reader a reason to care about what happens to the protagonist in the story. So I put her in a situation where she gets to show that she is resilient or clever or compassionate, or otherwise interesting and compelling in some way, while also hinting at whatever conflict or struggle she is soon going to have to face.”
Finding your opening during edits
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just can’t find that opening. But that’s okay. I was surprised by how many authors had worked that into their writing process and don’t stress about getting the opening right at the beginning of the writing process.
Wayne Stinnett shares, “I always start at chapter two, because chapter one is the crime and until my character stumbles onto it, I don’t know what it is. I often get to chapter five or 10 before I know enough to write chapter one.”
Anne Gracie adds, “It’s not until I’m at least halfway through the book—often more—and have really got to know my characters that I know what I need to set up at the start and how. And then I go back and rewrite it.”
Allison Lane says, “When I edit that first draft, the start often changes. It is not unusual for me to can the first chapter or two or even three once the story is drafted and I realize the focus has shifted or my original beginning was more of an information dump than a story.”
This is exactly what happened to my story. The beginning was an information dump which was me telling myself about these characters so that I could actually write the story. For my writing process, it’s an indication that I started writing too soon before the idea had baked long enough.
Don’t limit yourself by thinking you always have to write the same way. Every book is different. Cindy Proctor-King found that out with one of her books. “I did write an entire chapter for my pen name backwards once. I knew how it needed to end but not really how it began. So I wrote every couple of paragraphs from the end backward.”
Know your reader
Whether you get that opening right from the beginning or you prefer to start later in the story, the only way to hook your reader is to know them and what they want. Patricia Rice puts it this way: “The opening chapter of a book depends entirely on the type of book and the author’s voice…. So, if I have any advice at all, it’s to know the reader you’re addressing.”
Barbara Keiler notes that for openings she thinks about how she buys books. “If the book hasn't grabbed me by the end of the first page, I won't buy it. So, to me, one of the most important things about how to begin a book is to make that beginning intriguing. Make it funny, make it curious, make it gripping. Make it compel a reader to keep reading. With that in mind, I usually open my books in the middle of a scene in which something interesting is happening.”
Michele Mills writes in first person present and urges the need to have her readers bond with the protagonist in the opening. She adds, “Readers know they're getting rom com from me so if I can make them laugh or smile in the first few lines, that’s good too. I believe the beginning should let them know they’re in good hands—I’m delivering already what was promised in the blurb.”
That’s a lot of advice to take in, so I’ve made a quick checklist to refer to when you get stuck on your opening. Breathe. Step away from your manuscript. Ponder the following questions:
- What is your inciting incident? If you can become clearer about this, it will help you see your way through the opening.
- Did you start as near to the inciting incident as makes sense. If you find yourself writing too far before the inciting incident, ask yourself if that information really needs to be there or if you can filter it in later on.
- What is the internal flaw your character needs to overcome to reach their external goal? Have you hinted at this in the opening pages?
- Have you shown enough of the main character’s struggle or emotional needs so that readers can start to bond with them?
- What are the opening pages genre conventions for your book? Have you lived up to them or subverted them in a way that makes sense?
I hope this advice helps you the next time you get stuck. One piece of advice that helped me: load your manuscript onto your Kindle or tablet and read it like a reader. It will help you identify where the story falls flat and where it shines.
Harper St. George writes historical fiction romance set in various time periods from the Viking Era to the Gilded Age. Her latest series is The Gilded Age Heiresses and her upcoming series is The Doves of New York, coming in 2024. She lives in the Atlanta area with her family.