Over at Silver Pen Writers (www.silverpenwriters.org), member Frank Anderson, who is absolutely filled to the brim with good writerly wisdom, posted a great little piece on this topic. It’s a problem I’ve dealt with many times in my writing and in nearly every novel I’ve worked on to date: Where is the best point to begin your story’s main events?
I dealt with this question briefly in a post several years ago, and it was mentioned in the OPENINGS series a while back (which you can find in the “Categories” list on the left of the blog). Here’s the link to that specific post.
SIDE NOTE: The “search” feature on this blog is excellent. I did not design it, I just activated the feature. Please make use of it when searching for information because Scott and I have covered a LOT of topics since we began this blog back in 2011.
So, here’s the edited essence of what Frank Anderson said on the problem of timelines:
“Like many who think they have the greatest story idea of all time, it was time that had been giving me fits. The main part of my story, the part that triggered the whole mess, deals with the main character and an intense trauma. No problem, you say? Well, no, not really. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out when the story should start. So much to say, how much back story did I need in order to figure out who this character really was and why he was like that? That was the start of the timeline quest.”
Frank had the great wisdom to realize the problem. Many new writers I’ve encountered begin with backstory and description, a sort of wind-up to the real story, and many potentially good stories are sabotaged by letting them drag on and on in the beginning before finally getting to the real story. I have little doubt that agents and editors have rejected many novels (maybe otherwise excellent novels) simply because of this type of beginning.
Writers too often mistakenly believe that the reader needs to know all this background stuff before the story will make sense. Well, sometimes that’s the case, but usually not. The poor reader gets bored to death with all this background material being laid out (often told instead of shown). Ten or thirty pages (or fifty if he’s really unlucky) later, the real story begins—assuming the reader hasn’t put the book down before that. In these days of being able to preview a book on Amazon before buying, such a delaying tactic will guarantee a No Sale.
What a writer needs to find is that “inciting incident” (mentioned in last week’s post). However, it’s not always easy to find. As Frank said, it’s a quest to find where it all began, but once you find that starting point, it still may not the most appropriate one for your story.
Let’s look at some examples to clarify what I mean.
Harry Potter: While the first book and movie both begin at approximately the same place (Harry living with the Dursleys then receiving an invitation to study at Hogwarts school), Harry’s story really begins much farther back, to when he was very young and his parents were killed by Voldemort and he became “the boy who lived” with the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. That is arguably the first “inciting incident” in his life because it’s the one that sets his life on a new path.
Let’s pause a moment to define “inciting incident.” It’s variously defined as
(1) the event or decision that initiates a story’s problem.
(2) the point at which the balance of things in the world or in the life of one or more of the main characters happens.
(3) the point at which the story or the character is set in motion (or the first major turning point in the story).
Here’s one article that pairs nicely with the one from last week in being a good example of a “you must follow the rules” article. Pay attention to the examples because they’re good ones. But not all the advice in this article is on solid ground.
The rules in this article that tell you where you must put the inciting incident may be good guidelines for the novice writer, but they do not hold up as absolutes for telling a story. There are always exceptions, and good writers know when they can—and should—break the rules.
Back to Harry Potter. Why did author J. K. Rowling choose to begin her novel with Harry living with the Dursleys? I’ve mentioned before that this opening chapter is a somewhat dull one and is a lot of telling (the movie made some changes from the novel to up the tension and mystery, though). Conventional storytelling wisdom says that the story should have started perhaps with Harry receiving the invitation at least.
As you saw from last week’s blog and the linked article, storytelling is a bit more flexible. In order to appreciate the point at which the character’s life changes, sometimes we need to show the character’s life BEFORE the change, and this is where things can get tricky. A good storyteller/writer recognizes the need to grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible; a poor writer is more interested in dumping words onto the page and in telling the reader what the writer believes the reader must know first. I’ve said before that some have claimed that Rowling’s decision not to show Harry right away perhaps was one of the reasons some publishers rejected the novel. She spent a whole chapter talking about the Dursleys, not about Harry.
It could be argued that Rowling could have shown the battle where Harry’s parents are killed and Harry being sent to the Dursleys. That might have made a killer opening. Of course, she would have had to jump ahead to the present after that, but it would have worked, and it would certainly have hooked the reader. Nothing need have been explained, just showing the boy being orphaned.
On the other hand, one could argue that this would have revealed the magic aspect of the novel too soon instead of easing into that. So, you see the problem that Frank Anderson faced in his story. What is the best place to begin telling your story, and what do you relegate to background/backstory?
Let’s do a couple more examples. Star Wars (Episode 4, the first movie) opens with a battle in progress and Princess Leia placing some kind of information into the droid R2D2. Is this an inciting incident? No. The story is not about her but about Luke Skywalker. The inciting incident is the death of his aunt and uncle. That’s when his life changes. Nevertheless, we’re hooked by the strong opening, so that when the scene changes to Luke, we get to see Luke before his life changes so that once the inciting incident does occur, we see the pieces of the story slowly come together.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the director/storyteller employs a similar tactic by starting with action, except that this time it involves the main character in his “adventurer” life. The scene after that changes to his mundane life as a college professor and soon after the inciting incident: the call to adventure, the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In this case, what occurs is not so much a change in the life of Indiana Jones as it is a catalyst for setting the main story in motion, which is one of the other definitions of inciting incident.
Thus, we have two cases of the characters’ lives being set on a new path (Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker) along with setting the plot in motion, and one case where it’s more of a plot being set in motion (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Indy’s life doesn’t markedly change other than he is reunited with someone from his past.
I apologize to anyone not familiar with these three stories/movies, but hopefully you are familiar with at least one of them.
I mentioned earlier that I have faced problems in my own writing with determining the best place to begin the story. This is not the same problem as deciding where to place the inciting incident. As we’ve seen, that can vary in its placement. What is absolutely essential is that you begin your story with something other than telling backstory that has no hook, does not advance the story, and serves no purpose other than to “set up” the main story.
I’m not saying that you can’t set up your story, but watch how you do it. Beginning your story with pages of description of the setting, your character, and his/her normal life and with no conflict probably won’t cut it with most readers. Neither will dragging the opening on too long even if there is conflict. The story must MOVE FORWARD, not remain static.
Pages and pages of your character’s woeful life stuck in a bad situation and with no clear hope of breaking out of it will wear thin very quickly. I’ve seen writers do this. It’s boring. And even if your character has a happy life and lives in a fairy-tale location, do not spend pages and pages describing that, either.
In my first novel, More Than Magick the inciting incident happens when the main character, Scott Madison, meets the mage Arion and is pulled into an adventure that changes his life forever. However, that incident doesn’t occur until chapter 3 (nearly 60 pages into the original 450-page paperback). Did I make a mistake by placing the inciting incident too late in the novel?
I don’t believe so. There’s a second main character in the novel, Jake Kesten. Scott meets Jake in chapter 1. A prologue precedes chapter 1. In that prologue Jake experiences his own inciting incident (and meets Arion). Chapter 2 introduces the mage Arion. It sets up that character as well as the source of the inciting incident in Scott’s life. That chapter also delivers some backstory and introduces one of the bad guys. I probably broke some rules here (a writer’s prerogative), but I kept the story moving, and if you choose to break my novel into three acts, then the inciting incident still occurs in Act 1.
While I may not always agree with hard rules, I must admit that it’s a very good idea to put your inciting incident early in your story. However, you can get by without doing so if you substitute other plot points that hold the reader’s interest and keep it moving. After all, isn’t the purpose of an inciting incident to propel the story forward? Nothing says you cannot do this in other ways, only that it’s risky. Just be careful how you do it and that you don’t waste the reader’s time.
In my novel, I struggled with where to begin it and where to place the various events, and the story had some flow problems initially until I figured out how to place the various events. Beginning the novel with Scott’s inciting incident would have caused problems. I would have had to do a lot more in flashbacks to explain everything to the reader. Instead, I chose to move the story’s beginning back to where things started to change, back to where Jake first meets Arion, and moving forward from there. One could argue that Jake meeting Arion two years prior is actually the inciting incident in Scott’s life, this being the same logic as using the death of Harry Potter’s parents as the inciting incident in his life, even though it doesn’t affect him fully until years later.
Let’s summarize. There are no hard rules about where to begin your story or even how soon you have to introduce the inciting incident. What matters is that you grab the reader’s interest from the start and hold on to it.
A workshop instructor of mine once used swimming toward a destination as analogy for story progress. You must start by pushing off (opening hook) and swimming (propelling the plot forward) for a while before you’re allowed to take a rest by treading water or floating gently along (backstory). Your reader wants to see you swimming, not treading water, certainly not in the beginning and not for too long when you do. And even when you’re swimming along, make sure you throw in a few sharks or other impediments to your progress.