This week we're covering the long awaited (and long promised!) topic of beginnings, a subject close to my heart right now as I fight the good fight with the opening chapters of a new book. Yes, it's another long one, so go get coffee.
Are we sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
The opening chapters are one of the most important parts of a book to get right. For an unpublished author it's the partial (aka beginning) of their story which can grab an editor's attention. For a published author this portion of the story will determine whether a reader continues reading. Get it wrong here and it doesn't matter how good the rest of the story is-not if we've already lost our target audience!
Not so long ago I posted a series of Blogs on the basic ingredients of opening chapters, which you can find on the Writing Tips page of my website under the heading 'Book Beginnings'. What this Blog will (hopefully) do is go into a little more detail-or at the very least give you a glimpse of how my mind works as I get ready to start a new story. With that series in mind I'll use the same headings to break it down with examples of my thought process for this current WIP.
1/ The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the moment when something important happens. Think of it as a catalyst for change. Typically it's when the characters meet or see each other differently for the first time. The rest of the story unfolds from this point, both externally and, more importantly, internally. When it came to planning my current story I therefore had to think of something which would allow my characters to meet. I knew my hero was an undercover cop. By making my heroine a police psychologist he's forced to talk to before he can go undercover again, I have my starting point.
2/ Introduction To The Characters.
This is more than visual; it's who the characters are when the story begins. I like to think of this in the way we were taught to conduct a chemistry experiment in school: without a baseline we can't demonstrate how much things have changed after we change the conditions. In the beginning my undercover cop is determined he doesn't have any problems. It's only through the sessions with my heroine we begin to see how messed up he is and get to watch him work his way through it.
3/ The External Problem.
This is the plot which carries the story forward and gives our characters a reason to spend time together, something which is especially important when they may be reluctant to change. I know my hero has been forced into therapy sessions with my heroine so I'll begin with him trying to wriggle his way out of it. After all, he doesn't have a problem-so why would he need therapy? Unfortunately for him, my heroine refuses to sign off on the sessions unless he attends them.
4/ The Internal Problem.
Though not revealed to us in its entirety at the beginning of the story, without this our characters are unable to begin their emotional journey. My cop will initially be in denial so I have to hint at the problem for the reader without giving too much away. Getting to the internal problem is what is often referred to as peeling an onion. We do this layer by layer, so in the beginning we’re often faced with that crispy protective barrier. It’s an apt description if you think about it; do it right and we should shed a few tears somewhere along the way too. I can never peel an onion without doing that!
This is a way of giving the reader a glimpse of what's to come. It may be a moment when the hero and heroine briefly connect with the kind of understanding which doesn't make sense to them yet. It may be a hint of the aforementioned internal problem. In the case of the book I’m working on it appears in a seemingly throwaway comment which triggered a moment of inspiration for something later in the story. I don’t always plan these and frequently have to add them at the editing stage. Sometimes, like this time, it’s an ‘a-ha’ moment creatively, so it can be a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario.
From the get-go we need the story to have a sense of time and place. As I mentioned in the Blogs I did for the basic ingredients of opening chapters I like to think of it like a stage play. The setting is the backdrop. The readers focus should be on the characters centre stage. Having said that we can use the setting to add to the story in other ways, e.g.: my hero in this book is restless-his devil-may-care attitude a front he is finding increasingly hard to maintain. By trapping him within the four walls of an office environment he may pace like a caged animal, remaining distrustful of his ‘keeper’. Free him from that cage and the theory is he will open up. For some characters trapping them in an environment where they are forced to face up to their feelings for one another can also be an effective use of setting, as can using things like seasons and the weather to mirror the characters emotional state.
Everyone has a rhythm. Take out everything but the dialogue and we should still be able to work out which one of the characters is talking. It’s the same with the narrative and the author’s voice. We may not always realize it when we’re reading a story but every author has a certain way of phrasing things and a pattern to the narrative which is as individual as the characters speech. These things remain constant throughout but by changing the mood we can have characters who normally stick to short, succinct sentences talk for longer at a crucial moment and it will have more impact because we know it’s not ‘like them’. The most important thing is everything has to make sense and the only way we can do that is by having a ‘norm’ in the beginning. My hero in this book has a tendency to answer a question with another question. It’s a classic avoidance technique. By having him do it from the start we’ll always know when he doesn’t want to talk about something.
Technically speaking the beginning of our story doesn’t start at the beginning. What we’re doing is jumping into the pre-existing story of our characters lives at the precise moment when something important is about to happen. It’s the same when we meet someone new for the first time. We don’t know everything but as we get to know them better, we begin to understand them. For that reason when we start our story it is placed in the here-and-now with the equivalent of ‘on-the-spot’ news reports as events unfold. The only part of a character’s history we absolutely can’t do without is the event which left them wary of emotional involvement, everything else is of secondary importance. But either way it’s something which gets threaded through the story as it continues. In the first chapter of my current WIP I’ll let the reader know what both characters do for a living, their names and why they’re there but beyond that their back-story is barely mentioned, if at all.
Whether we realize it or not, every story has one. We tend to gravitate towards certain themes and for me they are mostly along the lines of family and home. I’m often drawn to the same things in the books I read and films I watch; the scope broadening to include how people become part of a makeshift family or stand up to defend their homes. I’ll be honest and say I don’t always know what the theme of my story is until halfway through a manuscript but in this case I knew from the moment my hero appeared in my mind. Since he’s an undercover cop the obvious theme is identity. He has spent his life lying to people and pretending to be someone he’s not so I found myself asking how difficult that was and whether or not he’d got lost along the way.
10/ The Hook.
In simple terms the hook leaves unanswered questions. With this current story I want the reader to ask what happened to my hero to make his superiors insist he talk to a therapist and even if I answer that question by chapter two I’ll want them to know more. By making his problem something which isn’t easily resolved the characters have something to work their way through. Add more problems to the mix and the conflict heightens which in turn leaves more questions to be answered. It’s action and reaction and in the beginning of the story it’s our job to set the ball rolling.
Frequently I’ll find as the story continues and I get to know the characters better I can go back and strengthen the opening-that's why I still believe one of the best pieces of advice I was given before submitting was to finish the manuscript first. Over the years-and as I start my 23rd book-I like to hope I’ve become more aware of my weaknesses and know where to focus my attention. I’ll re-write the first three chapters more than any other part of the book but when it’s so important to get it right, it’s time well spent. Maybe at some point I'll show you the differences between first, second and finished drafts. Let me know if you might find that helpful.
Next time we’re talking about the latest buzz-word: Unpredictability!
In the meantime if you have questions on beginnings, my thought process for this new story, next week’s subject or suggestions for future topics, let me know in the comments.
Have a great week gang!