by Kathleen Bradean

In Part I, I told you about how I
came up with the idea for my WIP (work in progress) and the title. This article
will focus on the beginning of the novel.

Word One. Or, where to start.

You might be thinking “Hey, you
told us about your vision of the story in Part I, why don’t you open with
that?” That’s a great question. Many times your first impression might be your
natural opening scene, but not always. I found this out the hard way with
another novel I wrote. I had this wonderfully compelling first vision. However,
after writing two drafts of the novel that didn’t work, I realized my vision
scene was part of the problem. It set the tone for the main characters’
relationship, but it took place a year before the rest of the story. When I
very reluctantly gave it up as something I’d know about but it wouldn’t make it into the novel, the third draft fell into place. Moral of that story: you can
only try to make something work for so long before you have to drag your writing down to the cellar and shove it into a shallow grave with all your other
darlings. I’m not going to open The Night
with the train station scene I mentioned in part I and I’m not
sure it will make it into the novel at all, which means I have to come up with
a different way to start my story.

The common advice writers hear is to start a
story in medias res (In the middle of
affairs). The definition of in medias res
is that an important catalyst for the plot has already taken place before the
story opens, a scene that will often be shown in flashbacks. Some writers take it to
mean they should open the work in the middle of an action sequence. While opening
your story with your main character busting a chair over someone’s head is
action, without context a fight means nothing to readers. If you add context,
the action is broken up by a lot of back story that muddles the scene and kills
the forward momentum of the fight. Not a good choice. But going the opposite
direction is also a problem.

Recently, I beta read a friend’s
fantasy novel. It was good once I got into it, but it took a long time to finish
the first chapter because he used what I call the Sound of Music opening. If you’ve seen the movie The Sound of Music, you probably don’t
remember the very long opening sequence that flies you over the alps forever, swings toward
Salzburg (are we there yet?) picks an alpine meadow to focus on (are we there
yet?) slowly brings your eye down to a young woman sauntering through the lush
grass, gets closer and closer until you can see her face, then she twirls,
opens her mouth, and begins to sing. You probably only remember the twirl and
the singing. And do you know why? Because it’s action. It’s interesting. That’s the place
where the networks tend to begin the movie broadcast because they don’t want
you to flip channels after two minutes of snowcapped peaks. Similarly, my
friend’s opening chapter started with the long shot view of the mountains,
slowly bringing the focus down to a little village as it talked about the
weather, the economy, the political structure of the area and the geography. That
kind of opening sequence is bound to lose readers. The TV networks figured this
out, so should writers. My friend fixed that in his rewrite and it made a huge

Instead of jumping into action without
context or using a Sound of Music
style opening, a better idea is to show the main character doing something
(action rather than simply sitting around thinking) that will bring him/her/hir
to the inciting incident rather quickly.

The inciting incident is what
causes the story to happen. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the inciting incident is when the Emperor orders the Duke to
take over management of the planet commonly known as Dune. You never see that
scene. That happens before the opening chapter, a good example of in medias res. As the story opens, you
see the Duke’s household in the midst of preparations to leave their home
planet for Dune. From word one, the story is in forward motion. Another good
technique is to ease the reader into the setting and characters by starting a
short time before the inciting incident occurs. Margaret Mitchell’s approach
for Gone With the Wind gave the
reader a chapter or two of normal life on the plantation, but still with forward
momentum leading to the two inciting incidents– Ashley announcing his engagement
to his cousin Melanie (effectively dumping Scarlett), and news reaching the
party that the war has been declared.

In my novel The Night Creature, I open the story at a party. The female and
male lead characters see each other across the room. She wants to hook up with
him and he wants her, but they remain on opposite ends of the room no matter where they move in the crowd. They’re chasing and evading each other
simultaneously. This foreshadows the plot. It’s also in medias res because you find out later that he’s been pursuing
her for a while and she’s been purposefully evasive. By
the end of the evening, she lets him catch her. During sex, he bites her. This
is the inciting incident. The bite transfers their roles. Now she pursues him
and he runs away. As they find themselves trapped in a game without end, they
struggle with all-consuming desire, obsession, and madness. I did mention that
this story is gothic horror, didn’t I?

The opening of a novel doesn’t just
introduce the character and their world. It should also give the reader a taste
of what’s at stake for the main character. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley, to flirt and be admired,
and to get her way. She wants life to continue as it has up until now for her,
only better. In Dune, the Duke
Atreides, his consort Jessica, and heir Paul want to survive the political
intrigues of the Emperor and eventually get off Dune with their fortune, power,
and lives intact. My characters want the game to end. Yeah. Not going to
happen. But that’s not the point. Show what your character wants, briefly. Then
yank it from their grasp with the inciting incident. That’s where your story
starts. Every book is different, so you could get to the inciting incident
within a thousand words or it could take you a couple chapters, but get to it
as soon as possible.

For an erotic novel, you might go
with a sexual the inciting incident. Desire, lust, attraction, a gang bang,
whatever is right for your story should be the catalyst to get the story
moving. Sometimes the inciting incident is a situation that makes sexual
discovery, seduction, submission, etc. possible. However, be wary of literary
tropes. This is an excellent article describing them:
I review erotica and have judged both erotica and erotic romance for contests,
and I’ve seen a few tropes so many times that, as this article suggests, they
make me want to hurl a book across the room. It’s a good thing I like my Kindle
too much to fling it. So please, do not make the inciting incident be a bad
break up. Don’t have your heroine take a bubble bath as she thinks (what did I
say about sitting around thinking?) about making a radical change in her life.
Don’t have her buy a fabulous house out in the middle of nowhere with only a
mysterious Byronic hero alpha male for a neighbor. Just. Don’t. For me. Please.

How do you decide where to start?
Do you go with your first vision? Is starting the novel the hardest part for

Next time, I’ll talk about whymaybe I should learn to outline (but it
won’t happen) and what to do when you feel like you’re up to your knees in muck
that’s sucking you down into a writerly funk and you don’t think you can slog through
it to the next chapter.