We all struggle with beginnings. Some people get better at it, but then you pick up a book by a bestselling author and the beginning just doesn’t grab you for some reason. So, we talk about hooks and throwing the reader into the middle of the action, but we also talk about setup and getting the reader to like the character. Sometimes, I think it would do us good to just practice writing beginnings. Don’t write another novel until we’ve written one hundred beginnings or something like that.
How do we do all of that? How do we begin with action and still give the reader the proper setup? When we read discussions of how to begin, it is easy to get the idea that we should put the inciting incident on page one, so that something happens on page one that causes the protagonist to decide to do something. I’m going to give you a rule that we must never break. There are many writing rules out there that are just firm suggestions, but here is one that you should never break: Never put the inciting incident on page one. Think of your story as a tent with several poles holding up the top. The inciting incident is one of those poles, but every tent needs ropes that are anchored to the ground to hold the poles erect. Thing of our beginning as that anchor. If we begin with the inciting incident the tent will fall down or there won’t be enough support in the middle, giving us a sagging middle.
To solve that problem, here’s a rule that is more of a very firm suggestion: Kill the protagonist in page one. We can’t literally kill the protagonist or will have a really short story and it might take a few pages to do the deed, but consider how Frances Hodgson Burnett begins A Little Princess. We begin with Sara and her father in cab on their way to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Sara is dying because she will be separated from her father. She has already lost her mother. It’s a slow death, but she is dying. Or consider how The Neverending Story begins. Our young protagonist is running from his tormentors and hides in a book shop. He too is dying.
As I consider this, I see improvements I could make to my beginnings as well, but the action that we want to throw our protagonist into is the action that demonstrates what is killing the protagonist. I showed you a first chapter several days ago. If I follow my own advice, that beginning will have to be changed. While I like that we begin with a man who isn’t what he seems—going with the theme—this beginning doesn’t throw us into the problem that is killing Sara. With the way I’ve revamped the story, one of the main problems is how they are going to keep paying their employees after losing the catering contract for the movie, but that comes later. At the beginning, we need to see that Sara hurts for these employees and sees the jobs Ellen’s café provides as means of helping them. So, instead of beginning with the problems of the movie production, we could instead have Amber come in looking for work and Sara is forced to turn her away. There are other problems to introduce as well, such as Sara’s lack of a boyfriend. We don’t need to spend a lot of time on that, but it plays into the story, so we need to mention it.
Basically, what we’re looking for is to introduce the situation in such a way that when they lose the catering contract because the movie is canceled, our inciting incident, we have no doubt that this will certainly kill Sara. Now Sara isn’t one to take her impending death lightly and for that reason we know that once we’ve thrown the inciting incident at her that she will strike back. She will find a way to survive. She will take up arms and fight. But the stuff before the inciting incident is the stuff of beginnings. It’s the problems our character faces every day and yet, it’s not.
We all face problems every day. Most of the problems our characters face are problems like we have, but that doesn’t make a good story. You got up this morning and your kid couldn’t find one of his shoes. If it’s well written, that may be enough to hold a reader past the first few pages, but that alone doesn’t make a good story. So instead, we make it that your kid can’t find his shoe because he left it at your boyfriend’s house, but you can’t go retrieve it because you broke it off with your boyfriend and you don’t want to explain to your husband why you needed to by your son a new pair of shoes. It’s just ordinary stuff with a punch.