June 11, 2020
One of the hardest parts of creating a strong plot that grabs the reader is knowing where to start. If you start too soon, you risk boring the reader with a lot of exposition we simply don't care to wade through.
Boring a reader early mostly ensures they won't be with you later. If you start too late, you risk either confusing the reader or never creating a strong connection between your reader and the main character, and both of those would be disastrous. For every story, there is a perfect place to start and all you have to do is find it. As most of us know, that can be challenging.
The Journey of Plot
Think of plot as a journey that takes the main character (and the readers) from engaging opening to satisfying ending. The beginning of the story will almost always be a place of normalcy. Now normalcy for your main character may not be what would be normal for anyone else—but it's the character's normal.
A strong opening gives us a tiny glimpse of normal for the character, just before everything changes. For instance, a story about a child who runs away from an orphanage to avoid being punished for an accident would probably begin at the orphanage. It may begin just before the accident that propels the inciting incident for the story. Life in an orphanage wouldn’t be normal to the reader, but it is normal for the main character.
This imagined story would therefore give us a sense of the main character right in the opening. Is he a surly kid, angry about being stuck in an orphanage and eager for change? Or is he a kid who normally wants to do the right thing? The best way for us to get to know that character in that initial opening might be to put him in a scene with another orphan where they’re lightheartedly messing around when they are supposed to be doing chores. And then, disaster strikes when the rambunctious action results in something being broken.
The main character knows the punishment for this accident will be severe. Now, a surly character might angrily decide that he's not getting smacked again as he's still nursing the bruises from the last time. The character who normally tries to be good may simply not be able to face the idea of punishment. In either case, the child decides to run away because of the pressure of that looming punishment and that launches us into the journey of the novel as the child goes from his normal world to the changing world of the story.
Notice also that this imagined opening shows an immediate conflict that applies pressure to the character. Strong scenes involve pressure that result in action. A scene where nothing of note happens is a dull scene.
The Elements of Opening
A strong story opening will almost always include certain elements:
1. Main character
Introduced in a way that leaves us feeling like we met this person, not as if we were simply told about him.
Even if we're about to leave this setting forever, as in the story of the orphan, we still want a real feeling for where we are.
This may be an inner conflict, something bothering the main character, rather than an overt act of conflict with another character, but physical conflict is engaging too.
Make something move. Movement catches attention in humans in real life and does it in stories as well. Don't just have the main character tell us stuff––get things moving even if it's only the action of walking through a field of tall grass. Movement engages. Make something move.
The Opening Has Purpose
Now we know the opening to a book or story needs to engage the reader. Agents tell us this constantly. Editors tell us this during revisions. If we don't get the reader in the opening few pages (or really, the opening page), then we run the risk of never getting them at all. But the opening needs another purpose. It must serve the plot. This is how you get the plot moving, so an opening filled with pointless action that has nothing to do with the plot is often not the best use of opening.
You must know the purpose of your opening as it relates to the whole story. That might not always be super obvious to the reader and that's alright as long as it (1) engages the reader's interest and (2) doesn't introduce confusion. A reader who can't sort out what's going on is a reader who will abandon the story. But the plot purpose of the opening might not always be super obvious. How can that be? Let’s analyze an example.
Peek and Run
In my book series, The Monster Hunters, with Abdo Publishing, I open every book with what I call a "peek and run." This opening doesn't have an obvious, clear plot tie with what comes after. It's a kind of prologue without all the exposition. In these, I throw the characters into the last moments of an investigation of a cryptid and then introduce total mayhem. There is always some screaming and running involved. The investigation of the “peek and run” is not the investigation of the rest of the book. This opening investigation might not directly relate to the main investigation of the plot, but there are important things I do in these "peek and runs."
The peek-and-run opening introduces the main character in action with at least one other character. We get a glimpse of these people under pressure which allows the reader to form opinions about them. We see the "normal" for these characters––they investigate cryptids. And the opening shows that these aren't seasoned professionals, they're kids who can make mistakes, get scared, and sometimes respond in ways that are extremely silly or extremely clever. And there are elements in these opening pages that will carry through the book later. An embarrassed character in the opening pages has reason to try to "prove" himself later. Having the characters cleverly band together to deal with the mayhem will come back later when they must use those same skills again. In terms of plot, I'm prepping elements in the seemingly unrelated openings. The relation may not be obvious, but it is there. It may look like mayhem, but it’s purposeful mayhem.
So keep these things in mind as you consider where to begin your own stories. As you craft your own opening, jump in there, engage, and draw all your readers into the amazing story you have for them. The end result will be well worth the effort it takes to get there.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Click here to let us help you write your book.