“Top Ten Tuesdays” — Please Welcome Top Ten Writing Blogger K.M Weiland

The 3 Integral Components of a Story’s Beginning

A guest post by K.M. Weiland of Wordplay

Beginnings are tough for a number of reasons, not least among them the fact that we’re wading blind into unknown territory, trembling with the knowledge that if we fail to be brilliant, readers won’t get past the first chapter.

How do we grip readers with can’t-look-away action, while still taking the time to establish character? How do we decide upon the perfect moment to open the scene? How do we balance just the right amount of information to keep from confusing readers, while at same time raising the kind of intriguing questions that make them want to read on?

I’ll admit to you that the beginning chapters of my books are inevitably rewritten more than any other part of the story. They’re tough to get right because they must offer so many elements in a seamless presentation that effortlessly entices and guides readers into the meat of the story. Look as we might, we won’t find any surefire method for making certain every beginning chapter of every book turns out just right every time. Writing is too organic an art form to be confined by checklists. I can’t give you the “10 guaranteed steps to a winning first chapter.” What I can do is highlight the three integral components found in almost every successful opening.

Character. Action. Setting.

Barnes and Noble editorial director Liz Scheier offers an anecdote (about a professor demanding active verbs) that sums up the necessity of these three elements. Scheier writes:

A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”

Scheier’s professor not only made a sturdy case for the active voice, he also offered a powerful beginning. Let’s take a closer look.

Character: Hitler

The professor’s example immediately gives us a human being (albeit a rather unsavory one) in whom we can invest our interest. Stories are about people. No people, no stories. We read because we want to cheer for larger-than-life heroes, learn about people different and not-so-different from ourselves, and vicariously experience adventures through the eyes of a character who lives in another time or place.

Authors can’t afford to put off introducing their characters. Whenever possible (and, with the exception of certain types of mysteries, it should almost always be possible), introduce the main character right away—in the first sentence even. The opening line of my medieval novel Behold the Dawn is “Marcus Annan had killed before.” Right away, readers know the character’s name, gender, and a hint about his personality and back-story.

Opening with generalities, historical or factual background information, or descriptions of the weather offers nothing to connect readers with the personalities who will inhabit your story. Readers aren’t likely to care about any of these elements—no matter how important they may be to the story—until you’ve given them a reason to care, via the characters.

Action: Invaded

Static characters are boring characters. A Hitler who sat around in his swank Berlin office and twiddled his thumbs might have made for a happier Europe, but he wouldn’t offer readers any reason to watch his actions. Don’t settle for opening the curtains to reveal a character standing in the middle of the stage with a name tag pinned to his shirt. When those curtains open, the character should be hard at work, preferably exhibiting himself in a characteristic moment.

At first glance, the opening of your story (particularly if it is the story of an ordinary person forced into extraordinary circumstances) might not seem to offer many opportunities for characteristic moments. For example, if your story’s inciting event is the hijacking of a subway on which your character is riding to work, you probably won’t find it practical to open with a scene showing your character working at the orphanage where he volunteers. So how are you supposed to force a characteristic moment into an event that is obviously far outside the character’s normal life?

Although it’s often handy when a characteristic moment is able to reflect on the physical nature of the protagonist’s world, you can force your character to act in ways just as powerful and revealing in even the most unusual of circumstances. The manner in which your character responds to the hijacking will tell readers much about him. Don’t just let him sit there in his seat. Make him do something. If bravery is the characteristic you want to emphasize, perhaps he challenges the hijacker. If you’re going for compassion, maybe he jumps up to help a wounded passenger. Or maybe you need to illustrate his cowardice, so you show him staggering to his knees with his briefcase over his head.

Whatever the circumstances you decide upon, make your character move. Show him in action, preferably an action that will knock over the first domino in the line of dominoes that constitute your plot.

Setting: Poland

Well-crafted settings not only ground the characters and their actions, they also shape the plot in important ways. Hitler had to have some place to invade. His actions couldn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s important to ground the opening of your story in a definitive setting for a number of reasons:

1)     It immediately helps readers fill in their mental blanks. Instead of imagining your character roaming about a featureless white room, they’re able to place him within the defined boundaries of a specific place.

2)     It puts the reader on the same page as the writer. Nothing frustrates readers more than a writer who forces them to fill in the blanks on their own, then rips the rug from under their feet by finally describing the setting as a much different place from what the reader imagined.

3)     It sets the tone and defines the story. Where a story takes place defines it just as much as who it is about. What if Hitler had decided to invade Spain? His story would likely have turned out much differently.

Don’t bore readers with lengthy descriptions. For instance, in our example of the hijacked subway, you don’t need to spend paragraphs describing what the inside of the car looks like, since most readers will already be familiar with the generalities. Even if they don’t know what a subway car looks like, they won’t be interested in finding out until you’ve hooked them with the character and action. Spend your setting dollars wisely by using them to establish the setting and sketching only the vivid essentials, just enough to orientate the reader and bring the scene to life.

Once you’ve anchored your opening scene with these three essentials, you’ll have built a solid foundation that will allow you to manipulate and refine the specific requirements of your opening in a way sure to captivate readers.

K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, workshops, and her recently released instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

39 Comments

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39 Responses to “Top Ten Tuesdays” — Please Welcome Top Ten Writing Blogger K.M Weiland

  1. This is fabulous, Katie! Imagine transforming all first chapters into single sentences of character-action-setting: “Catherine. Haunted. Wuthering Heights.” “Don Quixote. Invaded. The plains of La Mancha.” “Wilbur. Disrupted. The Arable household.”

    Great—now I’m not going to be able to stop.

    “Jane. Freaked. In the red bedroom.” “Spade. Investigated. The corner of Stockton & Bush.”

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    This is such a weird topic the deeper you delve into it.

    Active voice is key of course, because otherwise things feel disconnected (case in point the example from your own novel of ‘had killed before’ on one hand made me go “ooooh” but on the other hand made me think “but what has he done lately?” which gets into the whole history versus present thing).

    However you also can’t make every sentence actor-action-acted upon/location/etc, otherwise the reader will get bored after a while, but you still need to do active voice, and PREFERABLY keep the actor towards the first half of the sentence most of the time.

    Wish it hadn’t been so long since my creative writing classes 😉

  3. I can’t stress enough how awesome it is you used examples with your three component overview. It’s in the seeing of how story structure demystifies that prompts the “aha” moments.

  4. Thanks so much for hosting me today, Larry!

    @Victoria: Hah! Love it. I can see a whole new website springing up on the subject…

    @Patrick: As important as a first sentence is, we’re fortunate in that we don’t have to rely upon it entirely in itself. We have the rest of the first paragraph, the rest of the first page, and the rest of the first chapter to progressively build upon our posited character, action, and setting – preferably in a way that balances all three.

    @Shane: This is exactly why it’s so important for writers to read like crazy. The more excellent literature we pour into our brains, the more likely we are to get a feel for what works and, just as important, how it works.

  5. Ruth

    @Patrick – I thought the most intriguing thing about the sentence “Marcus Annan had killed before” was the clear implication that he was likely to do it again very soon!

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  7. Terrific post, Katie. Scheier’s quote from her professor really nails the components of the first scene.

    @Ruth–yeah, I loved the implication that Marcus Annan would kill again too. I wasn’t left with a “what has he done since,” but with the ominous feeling he would soon expedite someone else’s trip to the netherworld.

  8. I have come to look forward to “Top Ten Tuesdays” and this guest column definitely did not disappoint. As Mickey Spillane says, “The first chapter sells the book…”

    Openings are critical. If your story bogs down there, you’ve lost the reader for good.

    I’m also a big fan of the basic sentence structure: Subject, Verb, Object (SVO), and this format delivers for the opening. It’s also great for loglines.

    I have a collection of great opening lines from novels and they almost all open just like this. One of my favorites is, “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.” –John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber (1966).

    Great post.

  9. Great post! 🙂 Loved the example, especially.

    Question — with a mystery, if the opening is told from the POV of the victim, and the victim dies… does that still follow the same principle?

  10. Welcome, Katie.

    To pump up one of the early points: The opening doesn’t and probably shouldn’t have to be the first thing we write. Writer staring at a blank page really fits here.

    In my novels, I created key scenes, knew where they were in time, and then filled in the gaps in a logical sequence. Yes, I sweat lots of blood over the openings and will sweat a lot more on the revisions.

  11. @Ruth: You’ve got the drift. 😉

    @Linda: Thanks! Beginnings are tough business, so it’s always nice when we can simplify them in vivid ways like this.

    @Chuck: Opening lines are one of the most fun parts of crafting a beginning. There’s so much scope for exploration and drama – and often a little bit of craziness.

    @Cathy: I have to admit I’m not a big reader of mysteries, but I can’t think of any good reason why the principle would be much different. You still have a character (the victim), an action (the murder), and a setting (the place the murder takes place). The only difference is that you have to rinse and repeat for the chapter in which you introduce the protagonist.

    @Bruce: I agree. Sometimes beginnings are a thousand times easier if we already have a sense of some of the scenes that will follow. I’m an in-depth outliner, so I’m always able to approach my beginnings with the knowledge of how the book will play out to the end. But I *still* end up rewriting beginning chapters multiple times over the course of the book, as the story inevitably evolves.

  12. Martha

    Since I’m presently rewriting the opening scenes of my latest novel, this was timely and very helpful. Thanks, Larry for your generosity in giving us the opportunity to read it — and thanks to you, Ms. Weiland, for sharing your ideas and admirable talents.
    Larry, you have an almost spooky ability to give your readers the very thing we seem to need at just the right time. I always read ‘Storyfix” the minute I see it in my mailbox.

  13. Glad the post was helpful. Have fun rewriting!

  14. Galadriel

    Let’s see for my WiP…maybe
    Joel!Was!Uncomforatable!
    not quite the same punch.
    Joel! Rebels! Against Family!..
    better

  15. Lorna G. Poston

    I agree with Ruth and Linda: when I read “Marcus Annon had killed before,” I figured he would do it again. 🙂

    I’m working on a new story. My first paragraph introduces the main character and shows him in action, but it doesn’t plunge him into trouble right away.

    Instead, the opening paragraphs have him playing the position of QB at is high school football game. On his way home from the game, he is texting and driving with his girlfriend, and he hits and kills a pedestrian. (this is still in the first chapter)

    Should I make that my opening instead? I’ve wondered if the football scene—even though it’s brief—would bore most readers… especially non-football fans.

  16. Monica Rodriguez

    Terrific post, Katie, & thanks Larry for hosting her. I’ve tried to pay special attention to what occurs in my opening scene, but one thing you said especially made me question my choices: the MC should be in a characteristic moment. At first I wondered what that meant. I think I got it from your examples, but it looks like my opener’s in for some rewriting – that may be one element I’m missing. Thanks for the tips!

  17. @Galadriel: You’ve got the idea, although you still need to inform readers of the setting.

    @Lorna: Some stories absolutely need to take the time to establish the main character in his “normal world” in order to contrast with the tragedy to come. I would recommend writing the football scene first, if only to allow yourself to settle into your story world and set your mental stage for the story to come. You can always delete it later if you feel it’s extraneous.

    @Monica: Characteristic moments can be tough, since our inciting events often prevent us from illustrating something from our characters’ “characteristic life.” The fact is: inciting events are often highly *un*characteristic. But spending some extra time and thought to work a characteristic moment into the opening often pays multiple dividends.

  18. Fantastic, as always ;o) These are really great tips. As someone starting a new story, these steps are essential!

    Thank you!!

  19. It’s always good to remind ourselves the essentials. Have fun with your new story!

  20. Michael J Lawrence

    Great post. I’m going to apply this immediately to a revision of my medieval novella. (one of those cool coincidences.)

    Right now it starts with a detailed description of a manor, because the geography, right down to the demesnes, is important.

    Now, it’s going to start with the manor lord greeting the coroner’s clerk who has arrived to collect taxes.

    Wow, what a difference.

    Thanks!

  21. Setting is vital to any story, but nowadays readers are much less interested in setting than they are in character and action. We’re more likely to get readers to stick around to read detailed descriptions of our settings if we first hook them with character and action.

  22. @Mike — I agree with Katie here (and a whole bunch else… like, everything she says). Opening scenes, and especially novels, with detailed setting descriptions is one of those high school creative writing 101 “rules” we should throw under the literary bus. And precisely for what Katie said: readers aren’t patient with it. When it’s an important expositional element, then the art of the moment is how to honor both realms — getting it in there to do it’s expositional job, and keeping the reader engaged. The solution is to quickly make it clear that we aren’t getting a guided tour, but that there’s more about this “place” than meets the obvious eye, that there’s a reason we’re getting the guided tour.

  23. nancy

    Larry,
    I have to echo Martha. It’s like you’re psychic in timing your topics. I am just sitting down this morning to rewrite my opening because my writing coach likes my beginning and wants more–so she said to start the story sooner. This blog has helped me outline my task.

  24. Ruth

    @Michael – Might it be a good idea to dot your in-depth description around in small doses, rather than do it in one big chunk? Add it a little at a time, with lots of action and tension in between? Just a thought. 🙂

  25. @Nancy: Glad the post was timely for you!

    @Ruth: This is almost always a good solution.

  26. Ruth

    Thank you Ms Weiland. I feel like I just got two gold stars. 😀

  27. What to do in the first chapter to get your story going? Once thing does work every time: Lock the Central Conflict.

  28. @David: Conflict in the first chapter should almost always (although there *are* exceptions) be manifested in the action taking place.

  29. Patrick Sullivan

    David: I’ve been reading Writing the Breakout Novel and the Workbook of same, and he beats an important idea into the reader’s head which I’m starting to play with as I (yet again, sigh) rebuild my outline: Bridging conflict. While you still need to establish the character in their old world before the true big conflict hits (otherwise you don’t have enough stakes at the personal level, match), you still need tension.

    Just remember, even before the real problem hits, the protagonist’s life isn’t perfect, no one’s is. And since a good protag is larger than life in some ways, so are their “mundane” problems, let alone the big problem (great love? Great evil? Whatever floats your boat).

    Plus if you set them up right those bridging conflicts can come back to haunt the character during the main plot as added complications they’d forgotten about in the bigger swing of things 🙂

  30. KM… Thank you! I just found your podcasts yesterday and now here. The way that you peg examples to each of your suggestions is what makes you a standout.

    First lines are so hard but once you know your story, you can always go back and write them to set the scene and foreshadow events.

    I have the first line of my favourite kids book tattooed on my belly, right where it sinks in for me. It’s from The Silver Crown – “She had known all along that she was a queen.” It’s simple but had me hooked when I was a kid picking a book from the store.

    Then there’s Camus’ The Stranger – “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” It just reeks existential nonchalance.

  31. Ruth

    @Michael – I’ve had another idea – you could put a map in. That might considerably lessen the amount of specific detail you need to cram into the actual book. Plus, books with maps in the front are always fun. Or I think so, anyway! 😀

  32. @Patrick: One of the great things about “bridging” conflict is it can often be used as a wonderful way of foreshadowing the larger conflict to come. For example, in the science-fiction movie Pitch Black, the main character’s attempt to jettison the passengers from her crashing spaceship, in order to save her own life, comes full circle by the end of the movie when she has to decide whether or not she’ll risk her life to make sure everyone gets off the planet alive.

    @Ruth: Maps are great fun, but writers need to be careful about using them as a crutch. Except in very rare instances, the story needs to stand on its own without visual aids.

  33. Opening lines are a blast to play with. When you nail one, you just *know.* Once I have that first line, my scene usually falls right into place.

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  35. Great post and spot on.

    I’d never really mucked around with a lot of writing apart from a blog until my sister-in-law gave me the book “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. Bloody Brilliant.

    Basically gave me everything I could ask for in how to write an opening. The best piece of advice I could summarise here, “In your scenes, come in late and leave early.”

    Of course, there’s also, “Hit ’em hard, right between the eyes, with your very first sentence. You only need to get them to read the next sentence right? Do that, and then rinse, lather, repeat.”

    Cheers!

  36. Crafting a brilliant opening is no easy task. If you can do that, you’re already way ahead of thousands of other authors.

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