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Plotting the Beginning of a Novel

The most important job when plotting the beginning of your novel is to hook the reader. If you don’t grab them in the opening paragraph, you’ve lost them.

(And ideally, you need to grab them in the opening line.)

David Lodge put it like this…

The beginning of a novel is a threshold, separating the real world we inhabit from the world the novelist has imagined. It should therefore, as the phrase goes, ‘draw us in’.

How do you draw readers in?

First, introduce them to a compelling character, to a person they care about and want to spend time with. So long as you follow the strategies laid out in the section on creating characters, the readers will stick by your hero’s side for the long journey ahead.

But having an engaging leading character isn’t enough to hook the audience, not by itself. Something needs to happen to the character, or be about to happen soon.

Oh, and not just any old thing. It needs to be something of consequence, something that will disrupt the character’s world and force them to do something to put things right again.

The Big Picture of Beginnings

Plotting the beginning of a novel consists of three specific steps. Following them will ensure that you do draw readers in (and much more besides).

Before we get to them, though, a few general points about your novel’s beginning (and the opening pages in particular)…

1. Keep It Simple

Always remember that a reader is encountering your fictional world for the very first time. You know your characters as well as you know your own friends and family, but to readers they’re like strangers in a foreign land. So don’t overwhelm the readers…

Don’t introduce too many named characters too early in the plot (keeping it to just two is ideal). And don’t go into a lot of unnecessary explanation about where they live and what their childhood was like. All that stuff can wait until another chapter, once the readers have moved beyond the point of closing the novel and finding a better one.

Also, try to begin with as simple and self-explanatory a situation as you can, one which doesn’t require a lot of explanation to make it clear what the heck’s going on. True, just about every situation imaginable needs to be put into some sort of context…

What is the relationship between these characters? How did they get into this situation? What’s at stake here?

But that can wait. Fill the opening pages with something exciting happening, with talk and action. Leave any boring-but-necessary context until later.

2. Make It Relevant

Make the beginning of the novel true to what is to come in the rest of the plot…

  • Writing a gentle drama? Don’t begin with an explosion in a bomb-making factory, just because you figure it will hook readers.
  • Writing a thriller? Give the readers some high-octane action, not gentle drama.

Also, don’t begin with a situation that isn’t central to the novel’s main plot. If the central plot revolves around an extra-marital affair, for example, begin with the cheating couple interacting in some way. Don’t start with the man saving his best friend’s son on a hunting trip (or something equally non-central).

Plotting the Beginning: The Three Steps

Here’s a reminder of the steps…

  1. Start with the status quo.
  2. And then something happens.
  3. The hero makes a decision to act.

Notice anything strange about them?

I just told you to start with an exciting situation that will hook your reader and then to slow things down to explain the context.

But the three plotting steps above begin with the slow stuff (with ordinary life, with nothing much happening) and then move on to the exciting situation.

The reason for that is that it’s much simpler to plot a novel in chronological order in the first instance. (You’ll give yourself an unnecessary headache if you try to plan events out of sequence.) Once you’ve worked out what happens, in the right order, it’s easy to rearrange the chronology to tell a more exciting story.

The technical name for that is beginning in medias res (“in the middle of things”). You start with the exciting, world-shaking event. Then you slow down to put the event into context and show how things were before the event.

I’ll show you precisely how to begin “in medias res” later on. For now, though, we’ll take the plot in strict chronological order…

Step 1: Start with the Status Quo

Before the action kicks in, your hero is living their ordinary life. This is the status quo, the way things are before the hero’s world is disrupted. Nothing has happened yet…

  • The detective is heading home for a quiet night in with her husband and the murder victim is still very much alive.
  • The lonely boy has yet to meet the new girl in town.

In short, it’s just a normal day and your leading character is quietly going about their ordinary business.

Why bother to show the reader what “normal” looks like?

Because when something does eventually happen to disrupt the character’s status quo, the fact that you knew what that status quo looked like puts their troubles into context. For example…

If a protagonist’s daughter is kidnapped, that’s bad enough. But it’s worse still if we know what a happy family life they all led before the troubles started.

Note that the status quo won’t necessarily be all “wine and roses” for the protagonist. Their life might even be miserable (like the lonely, lovesick boy). But it will at least be stable. Fiction is just like real life in that sense…

  • The leading character will probably have their fair share of problems at the start of the novel, just like we all do. They’ll have bills to pay, an unfulfilling job, a relationship on the rocks – the usual things.
  • They will have dreams of a better life in the future, too, just like we all do. They’ll dream of having more money, landing a better job, finding lasting love.

Here’s the important point (as far as plotting the beginning of your novel goes)…

None of these problems or dreams will demand the character’s immediate attention. Their life is just the way it is. And although they know it could be a whole lot better, things aren’t sufficiently intolerable for them to do anything about it right now.

In short, their life is stable.

For the plot to kick in, something needs to happen that is important enough and urgent enough that they need to act now. The disruptive event can’t just be another minor problem that they’ll probably never fix. It can’t be just another dream that they’ll probably never chase. It needs to be truly disruptive.

Bottom Line for Step 1?

The essential task here is to “set the scene”…

  • Introduce the readers to the protagonist and perhaps one or two other important characters.
  • Paint a picture of the setting – the hero’s home or place of work, the town they live in, and so on.
  • Provide any necessary explanation – how the central character came to be in this situation, what their childhood was like, anything that’s important for putting what’s about to happen into context. Just beware of information overload. If you have a lot of explanation, only cover what is critical for the reader to know now. The rest can wait until later in the novel.)
  • Keep it brief and give hints that something dramatic is about to happen.

What’s the best way to achieve all this? With some sort of scene (i.e. talk and action) that best represents the character’s ordinary world.

The next step in plotting the beginning is to turn that ordinary world upside down…

Step 2: And Then Something Happens

Remember the detective who was heading home for a quiet night in with her husband? Well, guess what? She’s barely through the front door when her phone rings and she’s called to the scene of the murder.

The boy, too, is settling down for another evening alone in his bedroom when he sees the new girl in town for the first time. (She’s moving into the house right opposite!) It’s love at first sight (or lust at first sight if you’re less soft-hearted about these things) and his pulse starts racing.

It’s these events – the murder, the arrival of the new girl in town – which trigger the plot in each story. And the result of this “something happening” (other than making the readers sit up straighter) is that each character now has a goal…

The detective’s goal is to solve the crime. The boy’s goal is to win the girl’s heart.

Deciding what this event should be is a simple matter of reverse-engineering…

  • If the goal is to solve the murder, the event is the murder (or the detective being made aware of the murder if you choose not to show the killing itself).
  • If the goal is to win the girl, the event is meeting the girl.

Simple, right? Well, yes. Except for one thing…

Events in novels are rarely straightforward. The novels wouldn’t be very long, or very gripping, if you make things easy for the characters.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that although it’s possible to launch straight into the plot’s middle section at this point, with both the detective and the boy rushing out the door to go chase their goals, it’s more dramatic to make them hesitate.

That’s what the third step in the plotting sequence is all about…

Step 3: The Hero Makes a Decision to Act

The result of the previous step is that we now have a story on our hands. There still might be very little happening in the plot(compared to the big dramatic scenes that will come later). But something is happening. And there’s an unspoken promise of more momentous events to come.

And what that means, of course, is that we’ve hooked the reader.

Not only have we introduced them to a character that they (hopefully) care about. We’ve also disrupted that character’s life. And the reader will want to stick around to find out how things work out.

But here’s the thing…

Just because the central character’s status quo has been disrupted and they now have a goal, you can’t move forward with the plot until the character commits to acting on the goal. There are two broad possibilities here…

1. Committing to the Goal is a No-Brainer for the Hero

If a man’s daughter is kidnapped, for example, he’s hardly going to shrug his shoulders and decide to do nothing about it. Trouble is, if he springs into action without a second thought, it’s all a little too easy. And making life easy for your characters is not a great way to build a gripping plot.

What to do? Well, we know that we can’t have him hesitate over whether to act or not (doing nothing isn’t an option). But we can have him hesitate over precisely how he acts…

  • Should he pay the ransom or not?
  • Should he call the police or keep them out of it?

He wants to do one thing, his wife the other. Cue a massive argument.

What if the argument goes round and round in circles and they can’t reach a solution? Throw in a second disruptive event. For example…

They get a call from the kidnappers telling them to bring the money to an abandoned warehouse in 2 hours or their daughter dies. She also dies if there’s any sign of the cops.

Now acting on the goal of getting his daughter back really is urgent. The hero of this story has no choice but to act immediately.

Here’s another example of the decision to act being a no-brainer (and how we can still make the character hesitate all the same)…

Remember the detective heading home for a quiet evening in with her husband? When she receives the call that there’s been a murder, the fact that she will drive to the crime scene and begin the investigation immediately goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Sort of, yes. And there’s nothing wrong with having her do precisely that. But don’t discount the possibility of making her decision less clear cut…

Maybe she’s been recently promoted and this is her first big case. What if she isn’t up to the job? The self-doubt makes her hesitate and she seriously considers calling her boss to tell him that she isn’t ready for this. Put a more experienced detective, the one who recently retired, on the case.

Or maybe her marriage is on the ropes. They recently had a massive argument about how she’s married to her work and never has any time for him. This evening is their anniversary. It was going to be an opportunity to talk things through and spend some quality time together.

But then she gets the call, just as her husband is lighting the candles. It leaves her with an impossible choice…

  • Stay home and save her marriage? Or…
  • Go to work and continue her climb up the promotion ladder?

As readers of this novel, we know she’s not going to sit down to dinner with her husband (it would be a pretty lame plot if she did). We know she’ll drive to the murder scene. But we’ll enjoy the added drama as she wrestles with her impossible decision.

Bottom line? If it’s apparently a no-brainer for your protagonist to commit to his or her goal immediately, try to find ways to make the decision far less clear cut.

Having them hesitate raises the dramatic stakes. And it may add an interesting subplot to the story, as in the case of the detective…

  • The main plot revolves around her goal of solving the murder.
  • The subplot concerns her efforts to save her marriage.

(We’ll be looking at subplots in a later chapter, so let’s just leave that thought hanging there for now.)

Here’s the second possibility when plotting the beginning…

2. Committing to the Goal is Not So Obvious for the Hero

In the case of the lonely boy, for example, it may not even occur to him when he first sees the girl that he might one day be her boyfriend. He’s just gawping at a cute girl! The notion of talking to her and asking her out on a date might not enter his mind as a realistic possibility.

Even if the goal does occur to him there and then, he may just as quickly dismiss it…

  • The girl is out of his league.
  • She wouldn’t be interested in a loser like him.
  • She most likely already has a boyfriend.

If the character dismisses pursuing the goal out of hand, you’ll need a second disruptive event (or “inciting incident” as they’re known). This second incident of “something happening” in the plot will make him think that it’s not such a crazy goal after all.

Let’s say that the next day the boy is mowing his parents’ front lawn. It’s a sweltering day and he’s taken his shirt off. When he glances over at the girl’s house, he sees her watching him from her bedroom window, then ducking out of sight when she realises he’s spotted her.

Last night he was full of doubts. Now he has a reason to believe that maybe the girl fancies him as much as he fancies her. So he decides to take action.

Bottom Line on the Two Possibilities?

There’s nothing wrong in having your hero commit to acting on their goal immediately. You may want to get into the middle of the plot, when the action really kicks in, as quickly and as cleanly as you can.

But at least consider the possibility of making the hero hesitate first. They’ll commit to the goal in the end, of course. And you can make this happen in a variety of ways…

  • Sometimes the protagonist just needs a little time by themselves to think things through and work up the nerve to do what they must do. (If so, this is a great point to insert any necessary background explanation that you didn’t want to clutter up your opening pages with.)
  • Sometimes another character in the novel – someone close to them, someone they trust and respect – will give them the push they need.
  • Sometimes you need a second event – an even more disruptive one – to raise the stakes and make it impossible for the hero to continue to hesitate.

Which way is best?

It all depends on your particular story, on your instincts as a storyteller and on the conventions of your chosen category. Ultimately, though, the best way of plotting the beginning of your novel is the one that feels right to you!

Whichever choices you make, the point at which the protagonist commits to taking action is the exact point at which the beginning of the novel ends and the middle begins.

Before we move on to plotting the middle, we first need to discuss the possibility of “flipping” the first two steps. I’ll show you how to do that in Beginning a Novel “In Medias Res”

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