7 Tips for Writing Your Story's Beginning
Chapter 6 “Plot Points” – Section 1 “The Beginning”
"Don't you know that the beginning is the most important part of every work [...] For at that stage it's most plastic, and each thing assimilates itself to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give to it."
When you speak to many writers, editors, and publishers about the topic of prologues, they will generally give you the same piece of advice—skip it. The reason is that even in the rare cases where a prologue is actually relevant and part of the plot, it is usually terrible and boring. However, just because it is a difficult task to do right, does not mean that it has to be terrible; it only means that it has to be carefully set up in such a way so that it is interesting, directly relevant to your plot, and so that it had the same tone as the rest of your story. Today, we're going to discuss how to write the “Beginning” (or Prologue) plot-point and chapter.
Tip 1: Understand what purposes the Beginning needs to serve for your story.
The purpose of your Prologue is to set your story up for the most dynamic and comprehensive Inciting Incident—the plot-point at which you hero's life changes forever—possible. In “Star Wars – A New Hope” the Inciting Incident is the point at which our hero, Luke Skywalker, meets his mentor, Ben Kenobi, and is invited to learn to be a Jedi and to help save Princess Leia. With that being established, everything that happens before the Inciting Incident—Leia's being captured, the journey of the droids, and getting to know Luke—are all part of the Beginning. For the Inciting Incident to be dramatic and meaningful, we had to know a little bit about the story—the cast of major characters at play, the power of the Jedi/Sith, and a little about the world. Had the story started with Luke being knocked out by Sand People, the audience would have been completely unaware of the dynamic of the struggle, the galactic scale, the power of the villain, or what was at stake, and therefore would have made less sense and been far less impressive. Now, what are the basic things that your audience needs to know to be be able to appreciate your Inciting Incident? Compile a list of the events, world exposition, and protagonist actions that are necessary for the Inciting Incident of your own story. Make sure that you are not overloading your audience with boring exposition that could have been better revealed later, but the bare minimum of information necessary to understand what your Inciting Incident means to your hero and his/her world.
Tip 2: Make sure that your Beginning is actually part of your plot.
The single greatest mistake made when creating a Prologue is writing something that has no bearing on the plot itself. It helps us to get to know the world and the characters, but creates no sort of foundation from which to launch the story. Imagine, for example, had “A New Hope” started with Luke's childhood, instead of Leia's capture. Through that hypothetical Beginning, we could have learned about the Force, the Empire, and even about Luke, Leia, and Vader, but it would have all been pre-story. There would have been so sense of urgency, and no feeling like we should be engaged and invested from the very beginning. Don't force your reader to wade through an irrelevant short-story (or worse, bland exposition) just to get to the plot; start your story full-on from the Beginning.
Tip 3: Set up and build pressure for an explosive Inciting Incident.
In “A New Hope” we immediately learn that Luke is tired of living out in the middle of nowhere, staying at home while there are adventures to be had in the great universe. So, the story begins by giving us all the power and potential of a great adventure (a Princess captured by an all-powerful, dark sorcerer) and gradually builds up the pressure as the young hero who craves that adventure comes slowly-closer to it. Some writers might be worried that this will ruin the surprise of the next plot-point; but note that by revealing the setup for the adventure, the movie did not ruin the surprise but built anticipation for a payoff, which was certainly delivered. In your own beginning, you should align your character motivations, along with the events necessary for the Inciting Incident, to take place in a way that will clue your reader in that something significant and exciting is about to go down, in order to build anticipation and interest from the beginning.
Tip 4: Create an initial hook for your audience.
After you have set up for your Inciting Incident, the second priority for your Beginning is to create a Hook—something that will fuel your reader's interest from the very beginning. In other words, you create a promise that you are vowing to fulfill by the end of the story. When “A New Hope” opens with Darth Vader, wearing lightsaber, sending in armed Stormtroopers, and using the power of the Force, the movie promises action, sword-fights, magic-fights, and a physical struggle between good and evil. Without that scene, we would have had far different expectations or none at all; and had we seen that introduction and then received a story of romance alone, we would have been disappointed because that Beginning scene was a VERY implicit promise. Use your Beginning to subtly make your own promises for some of the greatest things to come in your own story, and you will hook your readers' interest to the plot.
Tip 5: Make sure that the Beginning has the same pace and feel as the rest of your novel.
A common mistake in writing is that the author will create an exciting Beginning that exists as a False Hook for readers—promising them a payoff that never comes or creating a manipulatively impressive feel at the beginning that does not last. You can surprise us with a little bit of misdirection (like revealing that, along with the epic war and fighting, there will also be a story of redemption and re-connection between Jedi hero son and Sith warlord father) but make sure that the promised pace, genre, and basic plot stay true. There is no better way to make your reader feel cheated than to reveal an awesome dark wizard, armed with weaponry, and then never bring the climax of a physical battle between hero and villain. So make sure that your tone, writing style, and level of excitement in your Beginning matches up with the rest of your novel.
Tip 6: Establish the norms of your world before the Inciting Incident.
Your last priority is to establish what your world or the life of your protagonist was like, before the Inciting Incident. We do this in order to create an appreciation for how much the Inciting Incident has changed things for the Protagonist, creating an impressive contrast, just like that between the Luke the whiny and bored kid living in the desert, and Luke who is a Jedi Master and leader of the rebellion. However, as we discussed before, this must be done in the subtle details. Instead of showing your adult protagonist's childhood, if this was the contrast you wanted to create, reveal subtle details that tell a lot about what that character's childhood was like, while they work towards the Inciting Incident. If the story starts with the main character waking up in a stinky old van, and walking towards his janitor job at the chemical factory where the zombies are going to originate, then we know that he/she is likely homeless and probably has a drug addiction, depending on the paraphernalia within the van, which reveals a bad home life or unsupportive family. Use subtle details to show us what we need to know, but always keep on track towards the next plot-point.
Tip 7: Once you have finished writing the Beginning, know what to cut and save for later.
Remember that the Beginning is not your world's exposition trash-bin. If you see paragraphs of non-essential exposition (meaning, you could cut it and detract nothing from the Inciting Incident), cut it, put it in a separate document, and save it for later. If your Darth Vader, for example, has a monologue about how the Empire came to control the galaxy, it may very well be important information, but too tedious for the section of your book that should be dedicated to hooking the reader. If anything can be cut, without it affecting the power of the Inciting Incident, cut it. It's just filler information that can be more subtly revealed later in the story, once your audience is invested in the plot, characters, and world, enough to care.
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I respect George RR Martin and the quality of his work, but the Game of Thrones did not appeal to me at all. The prologue was amazing, but I felt the rest of what I read couldn't meet it.
I shouldn't say anything since I am fairly uncertain on how to write a prologue myself. My newest prologue was full of confusing pronouns because of symbolic reasons, and it was more to show my character and his dreams than the story itself, though I think it did do something good.
On a minor advice note, I would recommend writing an alternate introduction with zero symbolism, zero vagueness, and zero confusion, to see if your original actually works by comparison. Don't get me wrong, it might, but that is murky literary water that can push away readers in a heartbeat.
I myself have the problem, that the start is quite slow as it starts with a "normal life" in which the rules of the world are explained, before starting off with the inciting incident as big change. So I'm quite focused to show that there is "action" in this world as expectation for the future development. But still redraft the start every so often undecided between two ways. Using either a flashback or foreshadowing a second character used in a later incident/plot turn. *sigh*
I really don't like writing the start -.-''
But for now I just draft the first version of the first chapters and change things a bit while actually writing it again...
'who is the protagonist?'
'What does he wants?'
'Where the story takes place?'
Then you need the inciting incident.
More like your point 3 and 6.
I hate when stories start in the middle of the action, without any indication about who is the protagonist and where the story takes action.
As for the Protagonist, yes it is usually best to start with them, and definitely better if you can at least indicate who they will be, though not always possible depending on the type of story/narration/style you are using; and their goals will usually not be cemented or established until after the inciting incident and first turning point (which we will definitely get to). Take the first book of the Wheel of Time, for example, where the story starts off hundreds of years before the birth of the heroes. Or Moby Dick, where the story is not told from the point of view of the protagonist, but as a member of the crew who joins.
I hope that clarifies things