Monday, February 4, 2013

7 Things You Need In The Beginning of Your Story

by Stephanie Morrill

I often receive emails from writers asking for advice on where to start their story. While every story is different, here are a seven elements that I feel belong in the first few chapters of a book:

Who the main character is and what they want most.

Readers want to know right away who the main character is and if what they want is something they can get behind. In Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren, we learn in the first chapter that Gabi feels as though she's been dragged along on her parents' adventures her entire life. She's ready for her own adventure.

A glimpse of what their normal world looks like.

Often called a character's "homeworld," this is something to give the reader a place of reference. We need to see Harry Potter with the Dursley's before we can understand why he needs to be yanked out of there. We need to see Rapunzel cheerfully bored in her tower before we can root for her escape.

A lie they believe.

Giving your main character a lie to believe is an easy way to build a layer into them. In my book So Over It, Skylar believes she will never be able to change if she stays in town, that she has to leave Kansas City if she ever wants to grow.

The lie can also be something more external, like in Replication by Jill Williamson where Martyr believes the air outside will kill him.

A disturbance in their normal world.

The disturbance is something that knocks your main character off balance. They haven't agreed to go anywhere yet, but they're starting to feel uncomfortable where they are. They're wondering more and more if a change is necessary.

Some books have multiple disturbances. In Tangled, Flynn Rider appears and Rapunzel is able to take care of him herself. Also, her mother yells at her that she'll never be allowed to leave the tower. Until this moment, her mother has always danced around the subject, but now Rapunzel understands that she'll never get the permission she's been waiting for.

An introduction (of sorts) to all the major characters.

This one can be a bit tricky, especially if you have a villain who doesn't have stage time until later. But consider letting the reader know they exist early on. Like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we hear a lot about You-Know-Who long before we ever see him. And on the day Harry goes to Diagon Alley, he meets several characters who are important later.

Jane Austen was brilliant at this in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, we hear a lot about Georgiana Darcy before we meet her. Same with Sense and Sensibility where we hear frequent references to Edward's older brother, and he becomes rather important later on.

An invitation to make a change.

This can be as obvious as owls delivering letter after letter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or as subtle as in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen where Macy is watching the Wish Catering people and finds herself envious.

Making a choice to go.

The beginning of the book officially ends when the main character makes the choice to go on the journey, when they walk through a door of no return, when they do something that can't be undone.

Does the beginning of your novel have these? Which one(s) come most natural to you?

28 comments:

  1. My "door to go" is a little fuzzy, I'd say. But then again...I might not even be to that part yet! I'm really still working on the "beginning." So really I think I'm still working on placing a disturbance that directly relates to the character's goal and then that "doorway." :)

    Thanks for the helpful post! This was a great checklist of sorts because of where I am in my book.

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  2. I love writing about the disturbance, that moment when the character is pushed outside of their comfort zone. I like making them squirm. :) What I'm terrible at is dragging out these 7 things... my pacing always seems off. Is there a rule of thumb to follow to know when you need to start wrapping things up or do I just need to play it by ear?

    Thanks, Stephanie!

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  3. This is a very helpful post! I was glad to see that I have all of them, except the lie that the character believes. I'll have to think on that one. All of my characters have a flaw, but I can't think of the specific lie they are believing in this story.

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  4. This is much needed advice. Thanks for posting!

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  5. I began writing my prologue/first chapter on Friday, with the 100 for 100 challenge...so pleased to find that I've already got most of these in there (or they're going to show up at some point.)

    Great advice, thanks for posting!

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  6. Great advice! I have a question: What if a story doesn't begin in the character's "normal" world? In my current WIP, the story opens with my main character arriving in Georgia (she's from out west) to stay with her aunt and uncle. Is this a problem? I guess I'm just wondering how I should handle this. Should I just be very careful with weaving in backstory, or should I start at another point in the story? I kind of like the idea of opening up in the middle of some action (or the disturbance, as it currently stands), since she didn't exactly have the most exciting life before moving.

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    1. Yes, mine is similar. Great question...

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    2. Great question. I think it can definitely work. It can also be really jarring. I've seen both :)

      Anne of Green Gables doesn't start with Anne at the orphanage, but I think it works really well for that story.

      If you're getting feedback from critique partners that they felt lost in the beginning or confused or something, you can always try backing it up just a bit.

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    3. That's a good idea :) Thanks for the advice!

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  7. Yes!! I actually have all of these. (except for the last two, but I'm only 7000 words in, and I know exactly where they're coming).

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  8. Phew, I either have all those elements already, or they're coming up very soon. I'm glad to see I'm doing something right with my beginning. I slways struggle with them. Thanks for the great post!

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  9. I'm afraid my beginnings are never very strong. I'll have to work on that big time--in fact, until this blog, I never really thought about a good opening, if I thought about it at all!

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  10. It would appear that I kind of speed through these parts. In one beginning, after only 20 pages, Avery has made the choice and started on this journey. In another, I thought the beginning lasted about 40 pages, but when I checked through these my action that sets the ball rolling is actually in chapter 1. My FMC doesn't make the choice to GO until chapter 3, but in chapter 1 there's already no going back. Is there a range I should be in for how long a beginning takes?

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  11. With my latest WIP, I don't think I've really worked on the "lie they believe". At least not in the first chapter. I'm not too worried, since it's a first draft and all, but this is a great list to keep on hand!

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  12. Man, this is going to be hard to do! I haven't really thought about a villian for my story..... I have a good idea for my lie. I'm starting my very first novel using the 100-4-100 to get it started. Oh, question for the 100-4-100 should our story end up typed cuz' I've been doing it old fashioned with pen and paper but still keeping track of words, does that work? Thanks

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  13. Thanks Stephanie!
    I'm happy to say that my opening as all of that! I was never to sure if I was missing something while I was writing but it surprisingly has it all!
    Thanks so much!

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  14. I just started my WIP for the 100-4-100, and I think I'm going to have trouble with the last one. My MC's world is changing a lot around her (a huge friend fight and her parents are considering a divorce). How do I make her walk through a door if her main goal is to control everything and make it go back to the way it was?

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    1. That's a good question, and it's tough to answer without having read your answer. I think the best example I've seen of this is Hunger Games. The book would be basically the same story had Katniss's name been draw at the reaping, but how much stronger is it because she took Prim's place? The author found a way to back Katniss into a corner so it was the only path that made sense to her.

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  15. Wow, that was really helpful! Exactly what I needed! Thanks! :D

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  16. I think I'm generally good at all of these, in time. In my finished (draft 2) novel, I have all of these. In my WIP, I have all of these, except for the lie, what they want most, and the choice to go. I'll work on that, though. On an unrelated note, I started plotting my novel today, after coming up with an actual climax! (Crazy, I know.)
    Thanks so much for the post, Stephanie!
    -Katia

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  17. I started a story -- the 100 for 100 is definitely to thank for that, so thankyou, Steph -- and so this is insanely helpful.

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  18. Thank you for the perfect timing of this post! I'm rewriting the first few chapters of my book, and this advice is incredibly helpful.

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  19. Thanks for this! This certainly helped me with my beginning for a story I just started.

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  20. This helped a ton, thanks! i was wondering if there are any small tricks or tips on how you could open or expose your characters at the beginning of the story. I know how the character acts and feels, but how would you display their thoughts? any advice? thank you once again

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