Every story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. This is where the author establishes the tone of what is to follow. The intended impact of the book can and should be established in the first pages. In this chapter, we want to:
- Introduce the protagonist(s). Who and what are they?
- Introduce the setting. Where are they?
- Introduce the conflict. What does the protagonist want? What hinders them?
The best stories then kick into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point.
Novels are not unlike a gothic cathedral–they are created of small arcs supporting other arcs, combining to create an intricate structure that rises ever higher. Because the strength of the story arc depends on the foundation you lay in the first quarter of the book, it’s crucial that you introduce a story-worthy problem in those pages, a test that will propel the protagonist to the middle of the book. This event isn’t the main event, but it gives the reader a taste of what’s in store for them.
This is the hook. The author raises a question and sets the protagonist on the trail of the answer. In finding that answer, the protagonist is thrown into the action.
- I learned this the hard way—long lead-ins don’t hook the reader. Long lead-ins offer too much opportunity for the inclusion of insidious info dumps.
My favorite books open with a minor conflict, evolving to a series of ever greater problems, working up to the first pinch point, the place where the characters are set on the path to their destiny.
The inciting incident is where the protagonists first realize they’re blocked from achieving the desired goal. They must find a way around it, and that leads to another crisis scene. The story arc is comprised of scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist toward the final showdown.
Open with a strong scene, an arc of action that
- illuminates the motives of the characters,
- allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and
- offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.
- The end of one scene is the launching pad for the next scene, propelling the story arc.
The clues you offer at the beginning are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.
In the opening, focus on the protagonist and introducing their problem. Subplots should be introduced after the inciting incident has taken place. If you introduce them too soon, they can distract the reader, making for a haphazard story arc. In my opinion, side quests work best if they are presented once the tone of the book and the main crisis has been established. Good subplots are excellent ways of introducing the emotional part of the story.
Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what launches the story.
Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. For the protagonist, personal weaknesses are exposed, offering the opportunity for growth. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling.
Or, if they aren’t, they should be—after all, the struggle is the story. How long do you plan the book to be? Take that word count and divide it by 4—place your first major event at the ¼ mark. The following two quarters are the middle, and if you have set your plot up right, the middle should fall into place like dominoes.
6 responses to “The Strong Opening Act #amwriting”
The toughest part of the story to get right.
It takes deft skill and much foresight!
So I sleep on it for many a fortnight
And hope, by dawn, to convincingly write!
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And by rhyming,
Cast the spell to write it well.
so many inciting incidents — so little time. 🙂
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Write, my pretties! Write!
An important topic. Thanks for going over it. Really good advice to follow. I would just add a couple of things. Another job of the opening is to create a sense of urgency and to establish what’s at stake for a main character. If it doesn’t make sense to actually open with the inciting incident (the disturbing event that sets the story in motion and causes a character to embark on a quest), then the set-up or staging event that does open the story should act as a mini replica of the larger story problem that will emerge when the real inciting incident does appear. When the main character sets off on a quest as a reaction to the inciting incident, before action proceeds to any meaningful engagement with the forces of opposition, it is often the case that a doorway moment or threshold moment must be gone through. At this doorway or threshold, key characters have to make a choice, commit to the quest, or, decide it’s too risky and crawl back to the illusive safety of the familiar world.
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I always love talking with you! I am at that place right now in a short story. Thank you for your wisdom!