Where to Start (Part 2)

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing that first line.
(Also: Outlining Can Help.)

One’s first line(s) need not be plot specific, nor allude to any sort of inciting incident. However, the opening of any story should be, must be, profound. Poignant. Riveting. Either in-your-face riveting or very subtly so. Teasing. Provocative. Your opening’s sole intent is to immediately immerse readers in whatever impending story you’re about to present. Personally, I often fool around with my opening, tweaking, nudging or even re-writing that damn sentence over and over, even after I’ve finished several drafts. And yet, somehow, I eventually find the perfect (for me) expression.

How important is your first line? Important enough to be Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers. (The only line as important is your story’s last line. So the same rule apply.)

I’ve gathered 25 fictional first lines (and corresponding 2nd lines, if appropriate) from previously published authors. I believe these openers grab readers exceptionally well. Most of these books were or are hugely successful, but widely vary in substance, tonality and mood. These intros provide the necessary allure (whether wit, pathos, humor, suspense or a teasing overview) to read on. Some will hint of an impending inciting incident. Others are far more opaque or elusive. So, in chronological order:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. (1813)

“It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet.”The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper. (1826)

Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic, A Tale of Two Cities, is already (in)famous for its breathless prose, and the book’s familiar first line would be torn apart by today’s editors (or at least separated into several distinct sentences). And yet, Dickens’ emotional perception of Victorian-era London helped launch the book into Wikipedia’s Top 5 Best-Selling Novels of All Time list:
. . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells’ opener is rather amazing, given the book’s pub date. Orwell’s first line foreshadows his entire plot, and even hints at the book’s brilliant conclusion.
. . . .No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells. (1898)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1925)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarletin twins were.Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. (1936)

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. (1937)

In the corner of a first class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times. And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. (1939)
. . . . An interesting aside, the British version of Christie’s book was first titled Ten Little N – – – – – – . (Yup, the infamous N-word; and the title of a familiar children’s nursery rhyme at the time. The rhyme’s plot factored prominently into Christie’s story.) In America, the title was changed to Ten Little Indians and ultimately became known as And Then There Were None. The book remains one of the best-sellers of all time.

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984. George Orwell. (1948).

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)

It was a pleasure to burn.Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. (1953)

In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime.Sophie’s Choice. William Styron. (1960)

The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. The Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin. (1968)

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut. (1969)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — The Last Good Kiss. James Crumley. (1978)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.Neuromancer. William Gibson. (1984) This is the novel, btw, that coined the term Cyberspace.

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.Glitz. Elmore Leonard. (1985)

Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.Postcards from the Edge. Carrie Fischer. (1987)

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. (1988)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. J.K. Rowling. (1997)

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.Cold Mountain. Charles Frazier. (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. With the others, they take their time.Paradise. Toni Morrison. (1998)

The creature watched and waited.The Past is Never. Tiffany Quay Tyson (2006)

Micky and the naked blonde are giggling in the Jacuzzi. On The Rocks. Me! Me! This one’s mine! (2012) …because I’m not above a little self-promotion (and I really like the line!).

I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years. The Good Lord Bird. James McBride. (2017)

We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? How Beautiful We Were. Imbolo Mbue. (2021)

Where to Start:
What Not to Worry About (Yet)

So begin… but do so with forethought and with a profound sense of purpose, of teasing or mystifying or exciting the reader. I’m aware that staring at a blank page, and glancing toward that distant finish line some 300 or 400 pages in the future, can produce a wee bit of anxiety. Of uncertainty. The common, cliché-ish and yet ultimately sage advice is to begin at the beginning. Although I admit the adage isn’t entirely helpful. Where to begin is often a writer’s state of mind at any particular moment.

But take heart. The truth is that very few writers know exactly where the beginning begins. My best advice is, for the moment, don’t sweat it. Don’t sit for hours, or days, petrified into inertia by worrying about precision or fretting about perfection. Just begin writing where you think your story might begin. At the moment, you’re more or less groping around in the dark. And that’s normal. Once you finish a draft or two, you can return to Page 1 with a better understanding of the overall story you wish to tell. You’re better acquainted with your characters, their personalities and motivations, and I suspect you’ll likely know exactly where your story should begin.

Because, remember—at any point in time, you’re allowed to change your mind. My first few pages rarely remain intact, and I’ll often rewrite my opening several times before I’m satisfied. But that’s what first drafts are for. A writer’s constantly honing pages, re-evaluating, reconsidering. Remember that your first few drafts will be sloppy, incomplete, and often inarticulate works in progress. A first draft (or outline) is like an artist’s sketch pad, full of literary doodles and unanswered questions. If you find yourself looking intently for typos or inconsistencies in your first draft, purple prose or incomplete thoughts, you’re doing it wrong. A typical first draft is a hot mess. It’s the nature of the beast.

When & Why Outlining Can Help.

While I’m aware that some (most?) fiction writers abhor outlining — admittedly, it’s not the most creative part of writing a novel — I’ve found that outlining can be a crucial, necessary element of story telling. Basically, you’re creating a cheat-sheet for yourself; a roughly scribbled road map containing just enough info to remind you of where you’re going, how you’ll get there and why. But while outlining, you’re also free to explore a plethora of new What if…? concepts, many of which won’t work, but a few which may dramatically improve your story.

Writing a novel is like a marriage. Those first 10-20 pages are the honeymoon period. It’s all fun and games, exploring new territories and considering uncharted options. But then the reality of carrying all that weight (sorry, married people) begins to take its toll. Sometimes uncertainly, self-doubt and even depression results. And then this cute-little-blonde of a new idea steps in, turns your head and there goes the marriage.

My advice? Dump the blonde (at least put her aside for a while) and persevere. Writing a novel is, and will always be, a major commitment. Stay the course.

Once you have your final chapter outlined, you’ll likely find it much easier to write toward that established end-game — even if you’ve only written a few pages of a first draft. However, once you’ve plotted those last few scenes, your characters will have sufficient motivation getting there and you’ll find yourself taking far fewer uncharted turns into the abyss.

Outlining a story doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind midway through, if something better comes along. (It occasionally does.) But, if so, take the time to update your outline and feel how this new concept plays out before writing another 20-30 pages that may go nowhere. (And don’t delete your old ideas just yet.) But, typically, an outline can often save that marriage.

An Example.

Here’s an (albeit somewhat verbose) example of how outlining can help: Let’s say we’re writing a love story that takes place in early 20th century Boston, at a time when immigrants were flooding the Atlantic seaboard states and seeking safe communities in overcrowded, impoverished, crime-infested cities. Politicians were little more than crime bosses. Young Bobby, who’s second generation Irish, falls in love with Maria, who’s second-generation Italian. Their families live on the edge of that teetering, cultural dividing line between the Irish and Italian communities. Such love, back in those days, often proved fatal.

Our beginning is pretty standard fare. Let’s say Bobby (18) meets Maria (17) at the corner apothecary/soda shoppe down the street. (This introduction is your inciting incident). He flirts, she giggles and despite Bobby’s best intention to dismiss her, he begins fall in love. And despite Maria’s father’s objections (‘No daughter of mine’s gonna be seen with some no-good, thievin’ mick squatter from Windsor!’) Maria’s smitten with Bobby as well. They begin to sneak away to the apothecary, or else meet at a little nearby duck pond, and talk away the long, summer afternoons. At one point Maria’s older brother, Vincente, catches sight of them holding hands. Vincente beats up Bobby, but that only reinforces his intention to marry Maria. Bobby’s older brother, Patrick, then beats up Vincente—their mothers bicker at the corner grocery, screaming in both Italian and Gaelic. Marias father, Luigi, threatens to lock her in the basement for a month, and repeatedly threatens to whip the poor girl senseless. Bobby’s father, Michael, likewise demands that his son stay away from this greannach girl—and yet Bobby and Maria aren’t dissuaded. They secretly plot to run away together…maybe to California, if they can save enough pennies, nickels and dimes.

Okay, so we’ve maybe written 100 pages of dramatic, intense realism, building the foundation of our story, with fleshed-out characters and brooding relationships. It’s time for Bobby and Maria to make their move. Come midnight, they’ll sneak away to board that long awaited train to California.

But perhaps that’s as far we’ve visualized the story line. We’ve reached as far as our romantic daydream has taken us. All along we’ve assumed that Bobby and Maria would elope and leave their families behind—but we suddenly realize that, once they’ve boarded the train, we’re leaving most of our carefully orchestrated, dramatic roadblocks behind as well. Freeing Bobby and Maria to be themselves, and happy, will suck much of the raw emotion out of the story. Do we provide new dangers on their way to California, or keep them in Boston until we can complete a few more story arcs?

Basically….so now what?

It’s the perfect time to outline any number of possible solutions. So after a number of false starts — ideas that, when outlining, are far easier easy to delete or alter than dumping 25 or 50 carefully drafted pages — maybe we find a couple of worthy concepts. So here goes:

Sample Outline. (Option A):

Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Maria. Because Bobby’s big brother, Paddy, is wary of Bobby’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Maria’s house, they find her father, Luigi, and her brother, Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding baseball bats. ‘

Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Maria and vowed that he won’t be deterred.

In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy pulls a small revolver from his waste band and shoots Vinnie dead.

• Panicked, Bobby grabs Maria’s hand and pulls the sobbing girl away from the fray.

• Running from the madness, neither Bobby or Maria see Luigi kill Paddy with a blow to the head.

An Irish cop, by happenstance, sees Paddy go down, and shoots Maria’s father. No! Luigi will provide far more drama as a foil if he’s still alive!

• Meanwhile, Bobby and Maria find refuge in an unoccupied, dilapidated tenement home a block away. Bobby’s tries to comfort Maria — but the girl’s distraught about her brother’s death.

An indigent wino attacks Bobby, but Bobby knocks the old guy out with a punch. No! Keep the plot taut here. No need for non-specific violence. The scene is dramatic enough without the distraction.

• Maria tells Bobby she must return home in shame to comfort her parents and, sobbing hysterically, she tells Bobby she still loves him, but that her brother’s death means they can never find happiness together. She kisses him goodbye.

…and now we’ve given ourselves a new set of hurdles before the two lovers can board that train and flee to happily ever after. Note that when I outline, I will often make notes to myself, and/or cross out those ideas that don’t feel right and even include (in red) a brief rationale for my decision, should I wonder later why I found those scenes ineffective or unnecessary.

But what if we’re not fully convinced about this new direction. Perhaps we’re still looking for other possibilities. The great thing about outlining: It’s quick and easy and, at this point, hardly definitive. Maybe we’re still thrilled about that train ride to California, and whatever obstacles that trek may provide. So what if…?

Sample Outline. (Option B):

Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Maria. Because Bobby’s big brother, Paddy, is wary of his little brother’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Maria’s house, they find Maria’s father and her brother, Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding a baseball bat. ‘

• Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Maria and vowed that he won’t be deterred by Vinnie’s threats of violence.

• In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy knocks Vinnie unconscious with an uppercut to the chin. Bobby grabs Maria’s hand and the three of them hustle off to the train station.

• A moment later, Vinnie comes to. And aware of Bobby’s plan to flee to California, he follows them to the station.

• Paddy gives Bobby a wad of cash and they hug. Bobby and Maria board the train and wave goodbye.

• A moment later, Vinnie shows up. Seeing Paddy watching the train depart, he pulls a small pistol from his waist band and shoots Paddy dead. In the ensuing panic, Vincente makes his getaway.

Vinnie returns home, explains that he saw Bobby and Maria board the train to California, but was a moment too late to stop them. (Does Vinnie tell his father he killed Bobby’s brother? Does he keep that a secret? Not sure yet!! Pros and cons of revealing the murder now???)

Enraged, Luigi tells Vinnie that they’re going to California on the next train and bring Maria back home. (Will two train tickets cost Luigi his last cent? Will they have to revert to robbery to fund their journey westward?) Since Vinnie’s a murderer, do we want to make Luigi a full-blown antagonist, or ultimately more sympathetic to Bobby’s plight? Meaning, might Luigi be redeemable? If so, probably not yet, but for the moment we’re keeping that open.

And thus, with relatively little effort, we now have two potential paths of forward momentum to choose from. Even with three or four variations outlined, eventually one will emerge as our best approach, and once we decide the most dramatic, exciting choice—we’re back on track and ready to draft another few scenes or chapters.

Oh, and one last option: If the spirit moves us, we can complete our outline — finish our story — before we begin drafting again. If we can discover a direct route from the train station to that final page, and outline the remainder of our book, we have a distinct advantage of having a complete roadmap between here and there. With a complete outline, we’re pretty much assured of how to proceed to the end of our tale. We’ll make far fewer wrong turns and blunders, and follow our map and that final destination: THE END.

Remember, an outline is simply a brief, short-hand list of what goes where. One need not add color or dialogue or innuendo. (We can if we like, but it’s not essential at this point.) We’re simply jotting down enough of our bared-bones, essential story-line to remind us of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. And, if we’ve begun our story somewhere in the middle, we can outline backwards to our first chapters and eventually connect the dots as well. And then, when satisfied, continue outlining chronologically to the book’s ending.

Do note that I don’t consider outlining a Rule-worthy necessity. While I consider it a crucial writer’s tool, I still believe it’s a writer’s choice whether to outline or not. For many writers, it’s an ‘only as needed’ obligation, and many writers don’t outline at all. S’up to you. (But keep it in mind, the next time you find yourself stuck in the middle.)

CONTINUE to Part 3: Discovering your story’s core elements.
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Where To Start (Part 1)

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Where to Start.
(Also: Exploring your Inciting Incident.)

I’ve previously mentioned that finishing one’s novel is pretty damn important. So important, it’s my very own (previously stated and completely subjective) Rule #1. However, I’m quite aware that Rule #1 presumes a writer already having a potential, novel-length idea in mind—and with both the technical knowledge and the self-confidence to begin crafted the tale exactly as envisioned.

And yet, for many novice and/or hesitant fiction writers, that’s not always the case. Rule #1 loses a significant amount of value if you lack the experience, insight and/or courage to begin jotting down that first line.

And, oh yeah, starting a novel takes a lot of courage. However, before I continue…a quick preamble.

The Inciting Incident.

A misconception that some newbie writers have is assuming that “writing a novel” begins with tentatively scribbling out that first line on the first page of the first chapter. But writing a story typically begins with a vague or promising idea—one that may pester you for hours, days, weeks or even years, buzzing around your brain like an angry mosquito. Often (not always but often) this incomplete but essential What if? premise will become either the beginning, or the crux, of your story—a simple idea that puts into motion all circumstances and events that will eventually produce a completed novel. This fragmented concept is known as an inciting incident.

Or think of it this way: Your inciting incident is the necessary spark that will ignite the remainder of the story. If you were to visualize your novel’s plot (story line) as a string of exploding firecrackers, the inciting incident is you, the writer, lighting the fuse. You’re telling readers that something different—wonderful or romantic or terrifying or mysterious or silly or mind-blowing—is about to happen.

For instance: What if a skinny third-grader named Johnny is beaten up by several sumo-sized fifth graders? That’s an inciting incident. Johnny begins to formulate a cunningly sophisticated, yet bloodless, idea for revenge and eventually sets the plan in motion. Either he succeeds or fails miserably. Maybe Johnny fails but learns other important lessons about friendship or love or the downside of revenge. That’s the plot.

Or: What if a nuclear power plant is struck by a massive lightning bolt in the dead of night? An inciting incident, right? Those few late-shift engineers on duty wake from a stunned stupor and suddenly realize they’re telepathic. How do they adapt to their lives in the new normal? Do they become social outcasts? Do they save the world from some secret government conspiracy? Or just always win at poker? The moment those engineers awaken and realize what’s happened to them, your story will begin to produce an endless series of What if? questions, until you decide upon a viable story-line and an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

One’s inciting incident can either be prominently or discreetly plot-relevant. Your first line or opening paragraph need not directly relate to your story or its outcome (See Where To Start: Part 2). Maybe you want to introduce a character or two. Or establish a definitive time and place to better ground readers in your fictional realm. Both character development and scene-setting are no less important to your story than your plot.

Because while many novice writers believe — or in their exuberance to immediately dive into the heart of their story, insist — that their first lines abjectly define a plot, a writer does have sufficient wiggle room. And while: The giant meteor raced toward the distant blue-green speck known as planet Earth. might indeed be an appropriate opener, one has the unlimited potential to muse numerous alternatives, providing those alternatives convey a mood or thematic hint of the excitement to come.

However, I do recommend that you, the writer, provide a connection (even an unlikely one) between your first line and your last. For example, consider: Mathias awoke to the stabbing pain of a hangover and, for the third time this week, vowed to give up drinking forever. In which case, Mathias might be a protagonist or antagonist; possibly a character whom we’ll follow through the entire novel—or else a minor cast member (possibly expendable) whose solitary function might be to open your story in some memorable way. And if Mathias waking up with a hangover is your novel’s first line, what if his drinking plays a crucial role in your plot? What if Mathias’s next bender leads to some fatal, plot-essential mishap 25 or 50 pages hence? And what if that mishap leads to a series of unfortunate events that keep readers spellbound until your final page. Thus you’ve introduced a character and, even if indirectly, referenced your inciting incident as well.

A seemingly innocuous opening line can foreshadow events to come, becoming inexorably linked to your inciting incident, which in turn is directly connected to your entire story. Keep in mind that an inciting incident’s sole purpose is to lead readers toward (and eventually into) the heart of a story.

I realize that many writers are unsure or only vaguely aware of where the plot’s heading when they begin writing. Meaning they won’t solidify or finalize a first line (or first page or even a first chapter) until they’ve finished a draft or two.* Me? I usually have no idea how or where my book might end for another 100 pages or so. I may have a vague concept, but rarely a solid comprehension. Some writers cobble together a plot as they write, relying on intuition and outlining. And more about outlining later. Others don’t really care at this point (those adventurous pantsers among us). Note that in character-driven stories (as opposed to plot-driven narratives) a plot is sometimes little more than an afterthought. It’s the drama of human emotion that drives the book, not any particular event (aliens or zombies, a murder or true love) that befall them.

For instance, the uber-classic The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age, character-driven novel, a young Holden Caulfield searching for the meaning of life in a superficial reality.

Conversely, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is largely plot-driven, the story’s protagonists often little more than convenient plot-drivers, as DNA-recreated dinosaurs run amok.

Can a book be both plot- and character-driven? Of course. One can’t write a book plot-free, nor can one write a book that’s character-free. All works of fiction contain both attributes—just that some stories are more focused on the plot, others more focused on characters. A few books that I believe contain a pretty even (50/50) stylistic mix of the both plot- and character-development: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; Stephen King’s The Stand; and, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind. Maybe not exactly a 50/50% blend of plot and character, but pretty damn close.

When considering a character- or plot-driven story, do remember that readers don’t read fiction to find out what happens, they read to find out what happens to whom. So even if you’re writing an intense, plot-driven novel, don’t skimp on appropriate character development.

Still not entirely sure that you’re ready to begin plotting or
writing a first draft? See Outlining in Where To Start (Part 2).

Okay, so what if those buzzing 2AM thoughts aren’t best suited as a story opener, but more viable as an isolated scene somewhere in the midst of your potential novel? Or maybe your original idea is more of a grand finalé concept? Can you begin writing your story’s last few scenes first, and then work your way forward? (Yes, it’s okay.) Can you begin drafting an idea somewhere in the middle and work both forward and backward? (Yes, it’s okay too. One can begin a novel at any point and fill in the blanks later.)

However, sooner or later, you’ll have to work your way toward your first chapter or two, and ultimately formulate that initial spark, the inciting incident, one that logically and rationally begins to define the tale you wish to tell.

For instance, what if one lazy Sunday afternoon, your chilled-out brain brushes against the fantasy of some brash young Medieval knight, confronting a castle’s drawbridge. Maybe that’s your entire concept… just a random knight upon his trusty steed, looking for adventure. Even better, perhaps you decide that this young knight has uncertain, untested magical powers. You name him Sir Edmond, and name the horse Pepper. But then what? Ah, but the possibilities (you believe) are endless!

Might this fragmented scene provide your book’s inciting incident? Possibly. However, you (and readers) may question Sir Edmond’s motivation. Why is this young knight even here? What does Edmond want? If you, the potential writer, don’t know, then your young knight isn’t going to know either. Lacking proper scene-setting, a clear story set-up or sufficient character motivation, Sir Edmond might bumble around without coherence or direction. Readers may be confused or, even worse, bored by a distinct lack of audience prep—meaning they lack a proper introduction to both the impending story and your protagonist (and/or antagonist).

The best way to provide a sufficient introduction is to draft your way back (in your mind, on paper, making notes on a PC—whatever works!) toward some logical beginning before Edmond finds himself sitting outside those foreboding castle walls. So you sit and think and daydream a little more, and perhaps eventually come with a possible solution, one of a thousand potential scenarios. Kinda like this:

What if a young princess is captured by an evil sorcerer. She’s forced into a life of anguish and misery until she agrees to marry the sorcerer’s son, a ruthless sociopath who covets her father’s magical kingdom. Okay, so there’s a viable intro, the princess’s abduction is a potentially great inciting incident. So you write a dozen or two pages, or maybe even several chapters, delving into the sorcerer’s nefarious plans and the poor princess’s plight. All hope is lost… until one day a lone knight with untested, magical powers appears at the castle gates. Maybe Sir Edmond is searching the countryside for his lost father, or sister, or cat. Any viable reason for his presence will suffice. But once inside the castle, our young knight catches sight of the tragic princess and is smitten by her beauty and angered by her precarious situation. Sir Edmond decides to do battle with the sorcerer to earn the sad princess’s love and respect...

So now you’ve returned to that original, nagging daydream. But now you’ve concocted a viable plot already and a reason for the young knights presence. Readers have already been introduced to your antagonist(s) that we already hate, and we’ve met the tragic, empathetic princess—and with this unexpected knight’s arrival, now we can anticipate a battle of wits and whatever ultimate, epic conflict that will eventually arise.

Intentionally or not, once your inciting incident is in place—directly or indirectly, discreetly or indiscreetly—you will eventually lead your characters toward your story’s conclusion.

Just remember that there’s no right or wrong way to begin perceiving or drafting or writing a novel; no best way, no by-the-numbers process, no single methodology that guarantees completion or success. My only advice: Write what feels worth writing. Write what best gets you back to accomplishing Rule #1. And that is: Finish your book. Because if you find yourself blissfully engaged and energized by your prose 10 or 20 pages from now—that’s a good sign. And, if not, perhaps consider trying a different approach. Or a new concept.

Still concerned about where or how to begin? Thumb through a few how-to books. Some are good, some are awful, so choose carefully. I also suggest perusing 3 or 4 of your own favorite novels with the intent of dissecting those scenes that astound you. You’re not reading for fun, but rather to determine why those books work. How do their authors create riveting drama, or effective pacing, or lifelike characters; how do they create sizzling dialogue or tackle action scenes, romantic scenes or else terrorize you into leaving the lights on all night. You’re not stealing ideas or plagiarizing — you’re simply trying to decipher how those authors create effective and memorable prose.

And one final thought about your inciting incident.….

I mentioned that one’s inciting incident need not be directly plot-related. Neither it nor your opening line absolutely must be grandiose or imposing. Lightning need not crash. Thunder need not rumble. Your inciting incident should be memorable, sure, but not unnecessarily verbose or overtly dramatic. Subtlety can also suffice. In terms of a less frenetic, curiously unobtrusive inciting incidence, for example:

What if Roberto notices Anita across a crowded room and, when their eyes meet, he suddenly feels a dizzying sense of breathlessness, of weightlessness, convinced that he’s met his soul mate? Or, What if three elderly sisters find an orphaned baby boy on the doorstep of their old, isolated mansion in the Louisiana Bayou? Both scenarios can offer unlimited potential for a writer.

But how might one fuse either of the above premises with one’s opening line?

Perhaps: Roberto found his cousin Niko’s party insufferable and had already turned to leave when he caught sight of a woman across the room who made the breath catch in his throat.

Or the bit more cliché-ish (but still an acceptable opener, imho): When Roberto’s gaze met Anita’s, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

Or what about: The old woman everyone in Bayou County knew as Granny Ray found the infant sleeping peacefully on her front stoop one morning, wrapped in newspapers and cradled in a cardboard Amazon Prime box.

Or the less specific: Granny Ray opened her front door early one morning, expecting to find nothing more than a bright blue Louisiana day.

Again, one need not announce the inciting incident in a book’s first line, but a writer should be aware of the inevitable connection between the two. Roberto and Anita’s will probably become lovers. But then what? Or Granny Ray discovers the child has magical abilities. Or, more traditionally, she falls in love with the child and wishes to keep it, despite her advanced age and eccentric behavior that has the neighbors worried. Writers can (and many do) spend a dozen or so pages introducing various characters or crafting colorful, spectacular visuals—a.k.a. scene setting—but those pages wouldn’t necessarily be considered plot specific. Necessary info, absolutely! But not necessary germane to your plot.

By the way, many works of fiction introduce a character or two, and explore their personalities, before delving into any sort of coherent plot momentum. (Best-selling authors James Michener and Tom Clancy are notorious for starting their plots very late in their stories.) Some writers take a chapter or two (or three) to properly ground readers in their new reality and then begin to reveal various characters living their pre-plot-specific lives. Again, ain’t no strict rules about how and where to begin a novel. Begin your story where it feels right. Because you can always change your mind later.

However, by jump-starting your plot, you’re also getting your protagonist (the good guy) off his ass. Crazy, but a story’s protagonist is almost always unknowingly or unwittingly forced into responsive action by a situation beyond his or her control. For instance, somebody cruel and nasty (your antagonist) robs a bank. Or kidnaps your sister. Or an attractive stranger whispers in your ear. Or your next door neighbor is bitten by a rabid aardvark and wakes up the next morning undead, craving human brains for breakfast. Maybe a budding astronomer notices a new dot in the night sky, but the speck of light is moving quickly—meaning either aliens coming or a rogue asteroid is about to decimate Mankind. (Yes, a natural or cosmic disaster can be considered a viable antagonist.) And discovering a glowing rock hurtling toward Earth is a tried and true inciting incident.

So is a bump in the night!
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* It’s absolutely okay to leave your story’s opening pending. Meaning give yourself the freedom to adjust your first line (or paragraph or page) after you’ve finished a draft or two.

I’m aware that some writers, so intent on perfecting their opening pages, will mire themselves in an endless loop of rewriting and re-rewriting their opening, and exhaust themselves before they even finish their first scene. Some writers will simply give up. But once you’ve determined your end game, you’ll be far more knowledgeable about your characters, their motivations, personalities and abilities, so a more suitable starting point will be much easier to establish.

CONTINUE to Part 2: Writing that first line.

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