Lights, Camera, Kickoff:
Story structure points 1 & 2
A lot of advice is given to writers on crafting the first few pages of their story to capture an agent’s/editor’s/readers’ attention. (For my version of that advice, check out my writing tip: Doghouse on Malibu Beach.) Far less has been written about what comes after those first few pages. The Story Structure series of writing tips is my take on all the major structure points that every novel needs—nine points, in all. The first two points are the ones that comprise, not the first few pages, but the structural beginning of the story. And a good structural beginning depends on how you arrange and balance two elements: the establishing shot, and the inciting incident.
The Establishing Shot is where you reveal to the reader who your protagonist is, and what his world/situation is. I’ve seen it referred to as the Ordinary World, but I prefer establishing shot because in cinema it can be accomplished while the beginning credits are rolling. But wait, you’re probably saying, all the advice I’ve ever heard is to start right off with action, and to spend time establishing my character and his ordinary world later, after I’ve drawn the reader in. And that’s not wrong, either. An opening, and still worse several opening chapters, that do nothing except establish your character’s identity and world before kicking off the story is a classic beginner’s mistake. And yet, I’ve heard several agents/editors at first pages critiques saying that they see far too many stories that “start too quickly.”
How can that be? Aren’t you supposed to start immediately, on the first page? First paragraph? First sentence, if you can bring it off?
Not necessarily. The problem with starting with the action too soon is that the reader needs a reason to care about your protagonist, before we can care if he succeeds or fails—or even lives or dies. Shots ricocheted off the pavement around me as I sprinted for the nuclear reactor. is almost as bad an opening line as Bob was just an ordinary engineer at a nuclear power plant. The trick of making an establishing shot work is to give your reader, not just the essential information about who and what your character is, but also a reason to bond with and care about this person. And then you need to balance those two things with/against the need to get into the action of the story quickly enough to keep the reader engaged.
One more point I need to make—the establishing shot is not backstory, which describes the events that shaped your protagonist’s life and world before the story starts. For the establishing shot we just need to know where and who he is now. Then the inciting incident kicks off the story. Throughout the first third (maybe even the second third, if you’re doing a slow reveal of something important) you can gradually clue the reader into important events from the past that have bearing on the present. But you should usually do that in smallish bits, and without slowing the pace of the story “present”. Another classic beginner’s mistake is to put the inciting incident in the first chapter, then spend the second chapter filling in the backstory. Or for that matter, placing the inciting incident in the first chapter, and then filling the entire second chapter with an establishing shot that doesn’t move the plot forward. Either way, you get off to a great start and then the action completely stops for an entire chapter—which is fatal. Once the story is in motion you need to keep it moving. And the inciting incident is what sets your plot in motion.
The Inciting Incident is the real beginning of your story where your protagonist acquires his primary goal, the thing he’s going to struggle to accomplish for most of the novel and will achieve in the climax—or if you’re writing a tragedy, he won’t. It’s also possible for this goal to change as the novel moves forward. But in the inciting incident, your protagonist is given a reason to launch into action. And it has to be a sufficiently large problem that the reader can see it will take a whole novel to resolve it. A sudden burning desire for an ice cream cone doesn’t cut it. Nor will a problem that could be solved by everyone sitting down for five minutes of rational conversation. This problem has to be something it will be genuinely hard to accomplish—which is not to say it has to be a world-changing goal. Getting violin lessons, when your father thinks that music is for sissies, can be as hard, and as important, as kicking an invading army out of the kingdom. Almost any event can be an inciting incident—as long as it gives the protagonist a goal that will be hard to achieve, and important enough to get him off his butt, out of his comfortable ordinary world, and into action.
And I can’t stress sufficiently how important it is for the protagonist, not only to act, but to act in such a way that his decisions and actions drive and change the plot. One of the most common mistakes I see these days is a protagonist who just wanders around while the story happens to him. Or even worse, the story happens to someone else while he witnesses it. But I discuss active vs. passive protagonists in my writing tips: The Most Common Intermediate Mistake, and Fixing the Most Common Intermediate Mistake.
Despite all that advice to start right off with the inciting incident, if you look at a lot of books you’ll find that many kids’ and YA stories place the inciting incident somewhere around the end of the first chapter, and many adult books put the inciting incident several chapters into the story. And those chapter-or-more establishing shots don’t stop readers from devouring those books. There are also books where the author gets the inciting incident into the first paragraph of the story and that can work brilliantly—when it works.
How you balance the establishing shot against the inciting incident depends on the story you’re trying to tell. If the reason your inciting incident is important is something that everyone will understand right off the bat, then lead with it. For instance, I once heard an author read her first paragraph in which the protagonist is fishing under the seat of her husband’s car for a can that rolled out of the grocery bag and found a pair of ladies panties. They weren’t hers. Boom. Story kicks off right there in the second sentence, and it’s great.
But if your story needs to give the reader some information before they can see why the inciting incident is so important, and why the goal that grows out of it will be hard to achieve, then you need to make sure that the establishing shot isn’t merely an introduction, but contains the seeds of the main conflict. Yet another beginner’s mistake is to start with an establishing shot that isn’t relevant to the main story problem. Most often with kids books this is a scene in the classroom highlighting the protagonist’s personal weakness—he’s shy, or a showoff, or being bullied, or is dyslexic, or whatever. But then you read the synopsis, and within a few chapters the protagonist goes into a fantasy world and the whole rest of the story takes place there. And except for introducing the protagonist’s flaw, that school beginning where we met his teacher, and all his friends and enemies, and found out what classes he has trouble with, has nothing to do with the rest of the story. So first, make your establishing shot an introduction to the main story problem, as well as the protagonist. If the story takes place in a fantasy world, then show us where the protagonist’s ordinary world will intersect with the magical one where he ends up. Show him interacting with the attic/antique shop/magical dingus of whatever that will soon be whisking him away. Give the reader some clues about the story to come as well as introducing the hero’s ordinary life and his personal flaws and strengths.
You also need to make the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, the things in his character that will shape those plot driving decisions and actions, a part of the establishing shot that leads up to the inciting incident. For that kid who wants the violin lessons, you might open with a scene where he’s listening to his I-pod and his father comes in, pulls the ear buds out of his ears, and drags him off to go fishing or to a ballgame. And how the kid reacts to that—passive resistance or overt rebellion—can set up the kid’s character, and the internal flaws he’ll have to overcome. The father’s attitude—overtly bullying, trying to reshape his son “for his own good,” or even ineptly trying to create a good father-son relationship in the only mode he knows—sets up the primary external conflict. And with all these conflicts in place, when the kid sees that gorgeous violin in the pawnshop window and can’t resist buying it, we know there are real problems to come.
Please note the prevalence of the word “conflict” in the previous paragraph. If you do start with an establishing shot, in order to draw the reader into the story it must contain some sort of conflict. A good strong narrative voice, and bringing out your protagonist’s emotions, are also essential to engage the reader when you make a slower start. And if you can maintain it throughout the story, humor always works.
And even if you can start with the inciting incident on the first page, you’ll find that soon you have to slow down a bit, and weave in the details of your protagonist’s ordinary world—his flaws, his interpersonal relationships, his personal conflicts. Both story structure points, the Establishing Shot and the Inciting Incident, are necessary to the beginning of the story. How you braid them together depends on the nature of the story you want to tell. And both of those structural factors, who your character is and what his problem/goal is, are the things that determine what happens in story points 3 & 4: the First Rising Action, and the First Change of Direction.