Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two Ingredients for a Great First Chapter

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Last week I talked about different ways to start a story---that first paragraph that hooks your reader. Today I want to talk about two things you can do in your first chapter to keep that reader hooked.

1. A character you can connect with.

The reader needs a person of interest to follow, which means this person must be interesting in some way. Maybe the reader can relate, so they read on because they've been through something similar. Or maybe the main character's situation is sympathetic, so the reader continues to read with the hope that things will work out. Maybe the main character is funny, and the reader keeps reading for pure laughs. However you do it, you need to give us a character that the reader connects with.


2. Inciting incident with high stakes.

I read a lot of people's manuscripts, and too many have nothing happen in chapter one. A story begins when a match strikes, not when you lay out the kindling. The sooner you get to the inciting incident, the better. "The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of the plot. The cat sat on the dog's mat is." -- John Lecarre

The inciting incident can happen in the first paragraph of your book, though it usually comes later. In most books, we get to meet our hero, see his life, see his problems, then---bam!---he is faced with an inciting incident. This doesn't always happen in chapter one, but it will help you if it does. And I say that to myself as well. If you give your reader an inciting incident in chapter one, you can avoid the "it took me a while to get into the story" comment and have an easier time hooking your reader for the entire book.

Consider the pitch statement:

When   (inciting incident)   happens to   (hero)  , he must   (live through the plot)   or face   (failure of story goal)  .

So the inciting incident is that first blank. It's the "something" that happens that sets off the story. And it needs to have high stakes or lead to a plot that has high stakes. It needs to matter to the main character and the reader. It could have/lead to personal stakes: revenge, saving a loved one, proving oneself, love, overcoming guilt, acceptance, etc. Or it could have/lead to public stakes: saving the world, stopping mass murder, providing justice, ending slavery, etc.

Here are some examples of different types of inciting incidents or situations that set up inciting incidents. Whatever you choose, it's what your hero does as a result of this incident that "incites" your plot.

-A disturbance or change (A tornado sweeps away Dorothy's house. Eragon finds the dragon egg. A new "doctor" arrives at Jason Farms. Luke stumbles onto the recording of Princess Leia when cleaning R2D2.)
-Faced with a choice (Prim's name is drawn in the reaping and Katniss chooses to take her place in The Hunger Games. Hazel decides to attend Support Group where she meets Augustus in The Fault of Our Stars.)
-A mistake (It could be a mistake that the main character makes that changes everything: In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, it's finding out that they're failing history class that sends Rufus back in time to help. Or it could be a mistake that someone else makes that changes things for the main character: Lucinda casting her spell on Ella in Ella Enchanted.)
-An objective (A quest of some kind like Bilbo being asked to be a burglar. A detective arrives at a crime scene like any episode of Castle.)
-A meeting (A new friend like in Stargirl. Love interests meet for the first time---any romance novel. A meeting between an employee and his boss in which an assignment is given.)
-A loss (Of someone or something. In Legally Blonde, Warner dumps Elle. In She's the Man, girls soccer is cancelled. In Taken, Liam Neeson's daughter is kidnapped.)
-A revelation (Your hero learns the truth about something that changes his life.)

What do you think? Does your first chapter have these two elements?

39 comments:

  1. OK, I have a HUGE problem! I don't even now what to make that 'inciting incident" is going to be. :( I have only written 1 scene so far and I was going to write some more today, but I really need to think about this before I do that. Thanks!

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru/?m=1

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    1. I know what you mean. I'm hoping to start a new WIP today.
      Great blog by the way.
      -Sam
      www.youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com

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    2. If you're starting a totally new story, don't stress about it. Sometimes it takes a little bit of writing to find who your characters are and the conflict they are facing. It also depends what type of writer you are. And if you're new to writing, just write. Enjoy the process. And worry about whether or not you have a good inciting incident later.

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    3. Thanks! I have thougt about it and now I have a very vague, likely to change plot. Better than nothing! :)

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  2. Sometimes I think that you and Stephanie can read minds. I tried to start my new WIP last night but I was distracted by Pinterest. Anyone else having a Pinterest problem?
    Anyway, this is exactly what I need.
    -Sam
    Visit my blog at:
    www.youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com

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    1. Yeah, I have a problem. Real life distracts me from Pinterest. XD

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    2. Social media can be very distracting. Best thing to do, work on a computer without internet. Or at least shut down the internet. Or bribe yourself. Do word wars with yourself. For example, once you type 500 words, you can go on Pinterest for ten minutes. Another 500 words, another ten minutes.

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    3. Good idea. I should be writing right now

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  3. Great post Mrs. Williamson! But I was wondering, do these story beginnings work only for like action books or any book? My book is kinda a mix between Little House on the Prairie and a romance novel so would these still count in a book like that? And is it ever OK to have a scene with two POV at one time or is that too confusing?

    Thanks!

    HP

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    1. An inciting incident applies for a romance novel for sure. For a memoir-style novel, it's a little different, I suppose. But you still need to hook your reader in some way. If I were writing a story like that, I'd put in an inciting incident. But that's me.

      I don't recommend two POVs in one scene. It's difficult to do it well. Better to master writing one POV at a time first, then later on if you really want to do two, you could. I never would since head-hopping is one of my pet peeves. I always keep one POV per scene. Again, that's the way I do it. I know there are books out there that head hop. But most the bestsellers don't. And I think that's important to note. Readers engage with characters better when there is one POV at a time. That's what the sales show, anyway. So take that into consideration.

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    2. Thank you Mrs. Williamson for so thoroughly answering my questions!

      HP

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    3. Dune, by Frank Herbert head-hopped quite a bit, I think, and it was popular. (Er, among political sci-fi geeks...) But you're right; its head hopping made me feel rather... disconnected from anyone, instead of immersed in everyone. Not to mention that it reveals the traitor before the major revealing of the betrayal...
      Also, I believe Hugo changed POV mid-chapter sometimes, though I'm drawing a blank on any specific incidents. Les Mis is written in omniscient, though it feels more like the sort of omniscient that's narrated by the author, with the thoughts, feelings, and actions revealed through Hugo's voice. So even if though Les Mis has an enormous cast, I don't feel so much like it's head hopping since it's all Hugo's head. Without reading it, one might get the impression that I am saying this is the definition of disjointed, but quite the opposite; he fleshes out every character, makes you care about everybody. But only a master can pull this off; otherwise it can turn out a DISASTER.
      In today's market an editor would probably hack off Hugo's character profiles, as abridged versions have done. Like cutting out the story of the Bishop of D--. *sniffs* That's why, ultimately, I decided to read the unabridged, though I could do without the section on the Battle of Waterloo. That and the social commentaries and big words that send me to the dictionary every other paragraph makes it a slooow read for me.
      One final note on head hopping: It might not be good for sales, but boy is it FUN to write. I like it when my characters think funny things. In an episodical bedtime story thing I wrote for my cousin this summer, I head-hopped mercilessly, and enjoyed every minute of it. In my WIP, a) my MC likes to imagine conversations and what other people are thinking, b) my MC later has a telepathic connection with a goofy dragon. So sort of head-hopping, within the realms of third person limited. I like showing what the dragon's thinking without actually showing it or having him say it outright.

      Anyway. This was my first post on Go Teen Writers, and what a ramble it was! I'm a teen writer, and I love this site!

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    4. Welcome to the blog! We're so glad you're here. Thanks for commenting too. :-)

      Yes, many classics or books published decades ago used omniscient POV or head hopped. It was simply how stories were told back then. Today most editors and agents are picky about it. That doesn't mean that no one will take a book that has omniscient POV or head hops, but some won't. And those that will consider such a book, the head hopping needs to be written very carefully. It takes practice.

      POV is a decision every writer needs to make for himself/herself. And if you're just starting out, the best thing you can do is write for fun and enjoyment. If you decide someday that you want to try and get traditionally published, that's when you will need to think more about polishing the POVs in your book, no matter which kind you've written.

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    5. Yes, Welcome!
      I'm reading Les Mis, too and I know exactly what you mean about Waterloo...

      ~Robyn Hoode

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    6. Thank you all. And welcome Anonymous!

      HP

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  4. Great post! Will use :D

    Quick question: What if you start off with the inciting incident? Like you don't introduce the character or life, the incident is there already? Would that work or need to be backed up later?

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    1. Hey Parker, I'm not Jill or Stephanie, but I hope this answers your question. :/

      Some authors start off with the inciting incident, I've read it before in several books! And then slowly their before life unravels. (this doesn't always happen...) Hope this helps!

      TW Wright
      http://ravensandwriting.blogspot.com/

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    2. Cool, that's awesome. Thanks TW! :)

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    3. I think it's tricky, though. Like in The Hunger Games, we need to see District 12 and Katniss in her everyday life BEFORE she ends up volunteering at the reaping. Do you see how without that time with Gale and Prim, that scene wouldn't have packed as strong of a punch?

      In an effort to not bore readers, writers will try to start with the inciting incident, but often that can make the reader feel like they don't understand well enough to care.

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    4. Ok, thanks Mrs. Morrill. I'm in a pit of WIP right now. :)

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    5. Good answer, Steph! That's what I would have said too. :-)

      And I like that phrase, Parker. "In a pit of WIP." I think I live in that pit! Ha ha.

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    6. Thanks Jill (if I may call you that)! Ha ha, me too. My WIP is really fun right now, hope it lasts. Thanks again for this awesome blog!

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  5. Great post, Jill!
    My inciting incidents usually are around the middle of the first chapter. How I start off my books is with the paragraph from forever ago that changed their life forever. Then zooms back to the now, and start thinking of a better life. That's what it's normally like, sometimes I start them with the MC's normal life, and so forth. :P

    Thanks again, Jill!! :D

    TW Wright
    Ravens and Writing Desks

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    1. Sounds like a good way to do it, TW! :-)

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  6. I just wrote a first chapter this week. Good post.

    I'm thinking I'll have to do some big editing - possibly rewrite the whole chapter, though I followed pretty much all of the tips you gave. My inciting incident was at the very end of the chapter - I don't think that's too late, is it?

    Robert T

    sunsetrising.blogspot.com

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    1. Nope. That sounds perfect, Robert. Good job! And I'll throw out a word of caution. Many writers get stuck rewriting the first few chapters of their book for months and months and never finish the book. So I always urge writers to keep going and finish that whole book, even if it's a mess. You learn so much about your own storytelling style and the story itself that way.

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  7. It's fun to find things I actually do pretty well! :D Though I've read and enjoyed books where the author starts with a picture of the character's normal life, I prefer to start with something of a bang. I think creating an inciting incident right off the bat draws in readers' attention best. Conflict creates interest. And I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of giving a character to follow. I love introducing a character who is instantly in trouble of some sort. Thanks for the reminder, Jill!

    By the way, I just finished The New Recruit the other day (read: stayed up way too late finishing it) and absolutely loved it! I'm excited to read some of your other books!

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    1. Sounds like you've found a good way to tell a story, Bluebelle. Keep at it!

      And thanks for your kind words about New Recruit. :-)

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  8. Thanks for your advice, After reading some of your articles and and advice , I decided my story had no plot so i deleted the whole story cause it had not plot then i restarted and made a story that had a plot.

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    1. Eek! Well, too late, now, I guess. But you never know that someday you'll open an old story and be totally inspired by it. That's why I never delete a story. I keep everything. Though I'm glad you were able to recognize that your story had no plot. It's important to have a plot to keep your reader's interest. :-)

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  9. Than kyou for advice! I think that my manuscript has these in the first chapter. :)

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  10. I have a question regarding the inciting incident. Should the character's tangible story goal spring out of the inciting incident or should the inciting incident be the first major disturbance to the character's achieving that goal?

    Thanks!
    Sophia

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    1. Either way works. It depends on the story you want to tell and how you want your character to grow over the course of the book. In Ella Enchanted, the spell Lucinda used is a situation that set up the inciting incident, which I think is the stepsister discovering that Ella always obeyed. After that, Ella got a goal. Find Lucinda and get her to reverse the spell. So that one sprung out of the inditing incident.

      In Legally Blonde, Elle wanted to marry Warner. And his dumping her only set her more on that goal. It changes it some, yes. She decides to get into Harvard. But that's only so she can stay close to Warner and get back together with him. And as she learns more about him, her goal starts to change.

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  11. Is it possible for the inciting incident to be "over the top" and too dramatic, so much so that the reader feels like the story's moving too fast?

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  13. My inciting incident is that my MC forgot that she has the same birthday as her sisters, and she is not a twin or triplet

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  14. I know this post is from a long time ago, but oh well. I have a minor and major inciting incident in my WIP, the minor leading to the major. Something out of the ordinary happens when the book starts, and because of that at the end of chapter one something crazier happens.

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