Rules, of course, are made to be broken.
Here are a few rules about how to open your novel:
DON’T open with description.
Description is static. Static means boring. It doesn’t matter what you’re describing: description is passive and inert and sits on the page.
You need to emotionally engage the reader and get them curious and worried. Description doesn’t do that.
DO trust your reader’s intelligence.
You don’t need to kill the reader with backstory in order to establish your characters, and you don’t need to spend a lot of time setting up whatever situation those characters happen to find themselves in.
DON’T get me wrong. Backstory is awesome. Description is awesome. They provide depth and texture and resonance. Just don’t open with them. Give your readers enough information to orient them in the story– and then get on with the story.
DO open with a scene.
A scene is the basic building block of fiction. It is fleshed-out and dramatic — which means it is also emotionally engaging in a way that summary is not. “Show don’t tell” is not true; you can’t show everything, or the story will never end. But you need to show all the important things.
DO open with your inciting incident.
Your inciting incident is the first event that destabilizes your character’s personal world order and kicks off the plot of your story. It’s what James Scott Bell refers to as “a disturbance” and what the Hero’s Journey monomyth refers to as “the call to adventure”. It’s the first surface problem your character needs to deal with and the first indication of the ‘real’ or ‘core’ problem that the character will eventually uncover.
I say ‘surface’ because every story operates on two levels. The first is the surface story, which is the concrete, tangible chain of cause-and-effect events the character must navigate. But each problem the character attempts to solve only leads him into a deeper problem, and then a deeper problem….until he learns to recognize and resolve the core problem that forms the heart of the story and is buried underneath all that cause-and-effect.
Unless that core problem is revealed and confronted, the chain of cause-and-effect will go on and on and on.
I will borrow E.M. Forster’s king-and-queen example to try and illustrate:
The king died. And then the queen died.
This, while unfortunate, is not a plot. It’s a situation. The death of both monarchs could be the inciting event, kicking off an interesting chain of consequences, but so far we don’t have a plot yet.
The king died and then the queen died of grief.
This is a plot, because the two events are linked: the one directly caused the other. The king’s death is the inciting incident that upsets the queen’s personal world order. What does she do? She grieves. She dies.
Forster’s example stops there — so far as I know — but I’d like to add that this is the surface story. The king’s death is the superficial problem the queen must grapple with in order to resolve the core problem that is buried underneath and powering the story forward: her inability to live without a man in her life. She is unsuccessful, and dies. The end. Gloria Steinem would not be impressed.
The story could have gone in a different direction entirely. Let’s say:
The queen grieves, and then immediately starts searching for that next potential husband. She wants the still-single king of the neighboring country, but he has no interest in her, and in a particularly humiliating incident at a ball, rejects her. To cope with this, and try to make him jealous, she throws herself into a series of affairs. Perhaps she’s fortunate enough to find some great sex, but falls into greater and greater despair. She drinks increasing amounts of mead and experiments with opium. One night she nearly overdoses. This brush with death makes her realize — I want to live! — and she seeks out an excellent therapist. She begins to realize that as a child she was deprived of affection and taught to rely and depend on men, and that her value as a person was connected to her appearance and marital status. She decides to reject this. She confronts her parents. She goes on a search to ‘find herself’, takes up a hobby, inspires and empowers the handmaidens around her, starts a movement…Her new spirit and sense of independence attract the king of the neighboring country, who swings through town and decides he must have her. He is hot and rich and powerful and she’s always had a thing for him, even when she was married, and now at last she can have him. But he is also a dominating brute who wants to tame and conquer her (and has some nasty plans for her kingdom besides) and in order to be his wife she must sacrifice her emerging sense of self….Which she is no longer willing to do. So she rejects him, which enrages him, and he attacks her, but she’s taken all those self-defense courses and gotten her black belt in two different martial arts and so manages to fend him off. He falls out the window and dies. She rules her kingdom as a confident and independent woman who has finally learned to love herself (and can play with the men in her court without seeking to define herself through them).
Notice how, in this little narrative, the death of the king is the inciting incident. It might seem to be what the story is going to be about, but is actually the ‘disturbance’ that begins a chain of cause-and-effect that reveals the story’s real problem: the queen’s desperate need for a man in order to feel that life is worth living.
If she was a confident and empowered woman to begin with, the death of the king would be terrible, yes, but she would cope and carry on. There would be no real story.
The deep problem, the core problem, has to involve a direct threat to the protagonist, has to shake up and endanger the protagonist’s psychological state of being. The inciting incident connects to the core problem, and disturbs the protagonist’s world in a way that starts to bring the core problem to the surface.
The inciting incident doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a death, by the way. It doesn’t have to be ‘dramatic’ at all. It can be low and subtle as a whisper. But it’s the first hint of unrest, the first sign that the protagonist’s world as he or she knows it is coming to an end. It’s also the first clue that will lead the protagonist to the deep, core problem that he or she must resolve in order to establish a new sense of balance and order. The protagonist — and the reader — won’t start off the story knowing what the ‘core problem’ actually is. The core problem surfaces and reveals itself in time. But you, the author, should know what’s going on underneath your story as well as on the surface of your story. When you figure this out, the ‘inciting incident’ becomes apparent, and gives you a place to begin.
with thanks to the excellent HOOKED: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers and Never Lets Them Go (Les Edgerton)