I won’t deny it, coming out with a claim that one part of a novel is more important than others is always going to be fodder for a rousing critique group debate. Certainly, at the end of the writing day, all parts of a great novel come together to comprise something that is unquestionably a total in excess of the sum of its parts. But like a good meal, there’s no getting around the truth that if the first bites don’t go down well, if they smell and taste like reheated leftover take-out, the rest of the meal might just end up in a tupperware bowl, the metaphoric equivalent of the Used section at the local bookstore. Or, let’s be honest, a story that opens lame will never see the inside of a bookstore, so a better metaphoric payoff is the Delete button on your computer. So that’s why I say — at least here and now, to make my point today — that the most important section of your novel is the first part of it. If you’ve ever started reading a novel and then put it down after an hour — and who hasn’t — you know this to be true.
Some call this part of a story the opening act, others refer to it as Part One, Act I, the set-up, the parting curtain, the opening salvo, the hook (not an entirely accurate description if you know your way around story structure), or just the first 100 pages. I’m talking about what happens from page 1 until the first plot point, or inciting incident, or whatever you want to call it when the story really hits its stride. And to make my point, I’ll again use another apt metaphor.
The first 50 to 100 pages of your story, or everything that comprises the “set-up,” is not unlike a literary balloon. The essence of good fiction is tension, and an inflated balloon depends on tension (air pushing at the skin, trying to escape, trying to explode) for its shape and personality. The more air you put into it, the tighter the tension, and the more inevitable the forthcoming explosion. The hotter the air, the better.
The first plot point of your story is when the story’s primary tension — its antagonistic force — makes its initial full frontal appearance. Prior to that point you’ve foreshadowed it, or hinted at it, or at most given us a partial silhouetted view of it, but somewhere between pages 50 and 100 the entire story changes with a big explosion of drama (or perhaps a more subtle one that nonetheless changes everthing). In essence, the balloon explodes. The more hot air — character, theme, stakes, backstory, a ticking clock, etc. — that went into your literary balloon before you explode it on the page, the more dramatic and effective the explosion is. In effect, you story has just erupted… the hero suddenly has a quest and a mission… the hero now has visible and daunting obstacles to face along that journey… the antagonistic force shows itself with an agenda of its own… we now have something to root for and against… and if you’ve inflated your Part One balloon properly, the reader is invested, the reader cares. Or in more writerly terms, the reader is hooked.
Imagine beginning the writing of your story without knowing and completely understanding what the forthcoming plot point explosion will entail. How could you possibly imbue your opening pages with all those elements that effectively set the stage for the remainder of the book, and an ensuing onslaught of tension-filled balloons to follow? It won’t happen, at least not until you’ve engineered your story — be it through planning or multiple drafts — to illuminate that understanding.
Finish strong, absolutely. But starting strong is actually more important, because it creates the context — and the tension-inducing hot air — that allows your story balloon to soar.