Finding Your Novel's Starting Line
Fri Mar 11 2016
Starting a race is easy. The starting line is right there, marked on the ground for all to see. Starting a novel is much harder. My twitter buddy @AmyManwarren asked for advice on knowing where to start a novel, and I can understand why. The starting line could be anywhere, and there's no race official to tell you where it is.
An opening scene's jobs
It helps to know what an opening scene has to achieve. If you understand an opening scene's jobs, picking the right opening scene is often far easier. I think an opening scene has four main jobs.
Hook the reader. First and foremost, your opening scene must hook us, by making us curious about something that feels meaningful. Heck, your opening sentences need to do this. If a reader picks up your book in the store or clicks through to Amazon's "Look Inside" the book thing, your opening sentences may be the only chance you have to capture that reader's interest. Don't waste that opportunity on something boring, like the cliché of a character waking up in the morning. Nobody cares about that. Jump ahead to the part where the baby barfs up blood right as the mom is heading out to work. The main curiosity hook is obvious: "Oh my god! What's wrong with the baby?" But layered underneath it is a secondary question relating to the mom's job since she's going to be driving the baby to the hospital instead of going to work. The more elements of curiosity you can layer into your story's opening, the stronger the hook.
Give us something to care about. There's a million ways of throwing an uncertain situation at the reader to elicit curiosity. But none of them matter unless readers understand why they should care about the answer. Readers need to see that something meaningful is at stake in the situation, or why should we care? What counts as meaningful stakes depends a lot on the story's genre and its intended audience. If your target audience is college guys in their early 20s, the blood-barfing baby may not really grab them. (No offense, guys, but I remember what being that age was like.) But if you're aiming at mature adults, most of them will have kids too and will be able to relate much more personally to that situation. I can't give you a specific formula for determining whether readers will care, but you should at least be able to look at your opening scene and point to the reasons why your target audience will care.
Show a logical jumping off point for the rest of the story. It's no good opening with the blood-barfing baby if that has nothing to do with what follows. If the baby turns out to be fine (just a bit of acid reflux--no wonder she's had such trouble sleeping!--easily cured with Xanax) and the whole incident never matters after that, then why start there? Why even have that in the story at all? Whatever we see happening in the opening scene, it should set things in motion or in some way affect the characters moving forward. If it doesn't do either of those things, pick a different opening.
Establish the setting. A novel is kind of like a vacation, where instead of actually going somewhere you only go somewhere in your imagination. An opening scene that fails to clearly convey where and when the story takes place leaves us uncertain that we want to go on that vacation. This one is usually pretty easy to satisfy, but still, it's worth taking a moment to verify that the opening scene isn't so generic that we won't get a clear sense of the time and place.
What are the options?
Most openings fall into one of these categories.
The inciting incident. Every story begins with some event or moment which pushes the characters out of their former equilibrium and sets the plot in motion. This category is probably the best one to start with. If you can make the story's inciting incident satisfy the four jobs, do it.
An important backstory scene. Less commonly, the opening might be some past event which will come to shape the events of the story. The hook, if you can pull it off, is "how is this event going to matter?" That's the primary source of curiosity for backstory openings. If your backstory scene directly relates to your main character, it should be some experience which will color the character's choices and feelings about the situations they face in the real plot. If the backstory scene is setup for the plot--for example, a flashback to fifty years ago showing a couple of bank robbers holing up in an abandoned house while the cops are looking for them--it should be there to give the reader information that will foreshadow later events.
A flash-forward scene. Probably rarest of all, you might start with an event that's towards the middle or end of your main plot. This only works when the flash-forward shows something compelling enough that readers will in fact wonder how we got there. "How did this situation come about" is the first half of the hook, while "How will turn out?" is the second. The risk with this kind of opening is that you give too much away. Readers go through the story knowing that this event is coming, which can easily sabotage the drama of the events leading up to it. E.g. if we see the sidekick character during the flash forward, then we know the sidekick lives at least that long. Meaning that if you trap the sidekick in a burning building at some earlier point, we're not going to be worried about it because we already know they're going to get out of it somehow. To avoid giving too much away, flash-forward openings must often be somewhat vague about exactly where and when they happen. This contradicts some of the "establish the setting" job the opening has to do. But if you can find a way to hit us hard with the two halves of that hook without committing major spoilers, this might be the way to go.
Whatever you pick for your opening, it must be an active scene. We need to have a sense of change. Of something happening. The change can be external or internal, but whatever it is, readers need to come away with a strong sense that something important is different due to the events of the scene.
Let me wrap up by outlining the most common problems I see with the opening scenes in clients' novels, and what you can do about them.
Starting too early. This is by far the most common problem, particularly if you're dealing with an inventory draft instead of a first draft. This happens when an author writes a chapter--or even several chapters--just to get in the groove of the story before the action starts. The preliminary material is there to do a lot of world building, introduce the characters and give us their life stories, and set up the general situation before hitting us with the inciting incident. Truth? You don't need that stuff. Just cut all the authorial throat-clearing. World-building can come as we see the character go here and there in the actual plot. We don't need to know the characters' backstories up front; save it as fodder for additional curiosity hooks.
Starting with something too mundane. This means opening with a scene that doesn't seem to matter to anything. A scene of an ordinary time in a character's ordinary life which does not seem to result in any meaningful change. Such scenes can do a fabulous job of establishing the setting, but if the scene ends and nothing is particularly different from before, then the scene hasn't done its job. Probably we don't need that scene, and you can just skip ahead to something that does involve meaningful change. And if the scene somehow does show something that's truly necessary to the story, consider whether you can re-arrange the story to put that event later. Don't open with it.
Starting with a scene where the outcome doesn't matter. This is a "faux drama" problem, where the scene purports to hook us with some kind of problem a character must overcome, only to find out later that their success or failure wouldn't have made any difference to subsequent events anyway. For example, a scene where Julie has to finish decorating the wedding cake by 11:00 so the cake can be delivered to the reception on time, only she discovers she's out of sugared roses, and has to scramble to make some fondant roses instead. Will she make it? Or will she be late? Only it turns out not to matter because the actual story is about her ex-husband abducting their daughter.
A common solution
The thing about opening scene problems is that no matter which one you're dealing with, the solution is nearly always the same: cut whatever you've started with. Don't throw it away. Keep it in your clip file. But chances are you already have something in your draft that would serve. All you need to do is remove the problem scene and anything else up to the first moment in the story that satisfies an opening scene's four jobs.