Friday, April 20, 2012

Plotting: Fast Starts

Last week I talked about the elements you want to work into your first chapter. The trick is, you can’t take too much time with setup. To start your plot off right, start when the action starts—don’t warm up on the reader’s time.

You probably won’t be able to do this in the first draft. Most of us need to ramble a bit before we get focused. But during revisions, cut anything unnecessary from the first chapter.

Ask whether it should even be the first chapter. Can you start later, when the story is already in progress? If not, are your opening pages dramatic? Should you start earlier, with a dramatic episode that leads to the main plot?

Be careful that you don’t start too fast. The inciting incident – the problem that gets the story going – should happen as soon as possible, but not until the reader is prepared. If it happens too late, the reader gets bored first. But too soon, and the reader is confused. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. For example, opening in the middle of a gunfight doesn’t have much impact, if you don’t know who’s fighting or why.

Beginnings are tricky, but see if one of the following works:

•    Start with two people on the page.
•    Start in the middle of a fight or other conflict.
•    Start in the action, at a moment of change. Then work in the back story.
•    Start with a cliffhanger – something powerful about to happen.

Exercise: Pick five of your favorite books. (I recommend using books published fairly recently, as styles change.) Study how they open.
•    What characters are on the first page? What are they doing, or what is happening to them?
•    Is the background explained, or do you have to wait to understand what’s going on, or can you figure out the situation from what’s happening now?
•    Did this opening grab you? Why or why not?

Skim the rest of the first chapter.
•    Has the author set up the main problem already? Or is there a small problem which relates to, or hints at, the main problem? If there is no problem at all, is the opening still interesting? Why or why not?
•    Is background information worked into the first chapter? How is it done?

I’ll have even more next week on getting off to a strong start. Find more advice on strong beginningsand all aspects of a strong plotin Advanced Plotting.


  1. When I am strolling a book store, picking up books ... I read part of the back cover and the first paragraph. If I'm not hooked, I move on. Not so much with Kindle books (especially the free ones). I usually give the Kindle books at least a couple of paragraphs! :) The start doesn't have to be frantic, but it does have to catch my attention and should make me wonder, "What's coming next?"

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great post, Chris! (I also loved Les Edgerton's book 'Hooked' which is about creating powerful openings that won't let you put a book down.)