A blogger and soon-to-be-published author I read regularly, Natalie Whipple, posted today about story beginnings. Rather than the first couple of paragraphs or pages, she was talking about the opening of the plot and story itself, which can take pages or chapters to complete. She suggests that the beginning is bookended by two events: the first is some incident – as mild as an observation or as life-altering as an accident – that changes the course of the protagonist’s life; and the second is the protagonist’s decision regarding their course of action following the incident. After this latter item, you’re in the middle of the story.
I liked this summary, and I definitely think it’s true. Natalie points out that you don’t have to open the first page with the inciting incident, but it needs to happen quickly because it’s what sets up the tension for the rest of the novel. It’s probably not a bad thing if it’s on the first page.
I remember reading somewhere else – and I wish I could remember where now – that The Hunger Games was an example of an excellent first chapter. The first chapter contains both of Natalie’s bookends, and does it while establishing the setting and backstory as well. As the first chapter comes to a close, Katniss’ entire life has just been turned on its head – twice. The first when her sister’s name is drawn as tribute, and the second when Katniss volunteers herself instead and suddenly finds herself facing a death sentence.
I read it somewhere between crafting novel #2 and #3, and as I was writing the opening to #3, what became Magestone, I held it firmly in my mind. By the end of the first chapter of Magestone, Ryanne’s life has similarly been completely upended, though you could argue her second bookend doesn’t really come till a bit later.
Beginnings are tough, because they’re so important in determining whether your reader keeps going or loses interest. Natalie’s post is a good read, and it’s interesting to consider some favourite books to look at how the beginnings were set up in them; how quickly these two bookends were set up and what encouraged you to keep reading.