So yesterday I dove into reading the opening pages of a really messy first draft of one of my projects and noticed that I had broken the first commandment of story structure– Thou Shalt Not Be Boring.
Here’s what happened in these pages. My main character drove her kid around, chatted with her girlfriend, and phoned her boss (all in service, I believed, of “setting up her world.”) Now, I’m going to cut myself some slack (as should you) because a first draft is supposed to be messy and vomitous, and contain numerous false paths and digressions. We are, after all, trying to find our characters, their voices, and many times, the core of our story.
But here’s the thing. I don’t care if you’re writing a screenplay, novel or memoir…
You have to grab the reader in the opening pages, and get to the inciting incident fast.
The inciting incident is the event that gets the story rolling. Someone falls in love, or finds a suitcase filled with money, or steps onto a crime scene. It’s the catalyst that jolts the narrative forward, and usually happens in the first 10-15 pages. Yes, there are great books with no inciting incident for miles, but the masterful writers of these books use other advanced techniques to hook the reader. For us mere mortals, the task is generally to capture the reader with a plot point so they must read on.
There are numerous ways to get your story off to a ripping start. Begin with your character in the middle of action, and reveal immediately what the story is going to be about. If your book or movie is focused on a woman who decides to marry her best friend, then let’s see him get engaged to someone else. If your story is a murder mystery, give us BLOOD! If you’re writing a memoir about your transformation from housewife to firefighter, what happens that forces you to get a job outside the home?
Once the reader knows the “problem” and understands the quest of your protagonist, they’re in. Then it’s up to you to create enough twists and turns to hold them there.
Here are a couple of great openings that grab us right away. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, we see Clarice running through a darkened forest, then standing in Jack Crawford’s office, looking at photos of dead girls. We know right away that this movie is going to be about trying to catch Buffalo Bill, a serial killer. In 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, Steve Carrell’s character wakes up, goes to work at Circuit City, and gets invited to a poker party. At the party (on page ten) he’s telling a clearly bogus story about having sex, when he gets busted by his buddies. He’s a virgin!
In the memoir WILD, about hiking The Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed starts her book in a scene where she’s lost one of her boots over a cliff. She is exhausted, alone, and terrified. Although this is not the inciting incident, she starts her story in a conflict-ridden action moment that pulls us in. We then flashback to the ordinary world and how she got started on her journey.
Take action! Does your story start with a bang? Do we know, within the first ten to fifteen pages, what your book or movie is going to be about? Does your inciting incident happen quickly? If not, how will you grab the reader with a secret or mystery or quest that locks them to the page?
Also, beware of Backstory. It is the most common culprit in slow starting narratives. You don’t have to set things up. Start your protagonist right before he/she gets rolling on the quest, and have faith that what happened in the past can be judiciously woven in later.
Crank the engine on your story machine and get out of the gate quickly!
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