One caveat before I continue talking about story beginnings. We all have different reading tastes and will have different opinions on what makes a good story. Therefore, take my ramblings with a grain of salt. If you are someone who reads for plot, you may (quite validly) disagree with me. If you are all about the subtle character studies, my suggestions may seem too heavy-handed for you. And that’s fine. For me, as a reader and writer, I find myself drawn to stories where the plot and character are intertwined, with the plot being the physical vehicle through which the character effects meaningful personal growth or change. Your mileage may vary.
In fact, a really good exercise is to pull 10 of your favorite books off the shelf and read the first scene. What about that scene grabs you? At what point did you feel you were in the hands of a skilled, competent storyteller and decide you wanted to go along for the ride? That can be a good guide as you try to construct your own first scenes. Now, onward...
In order to show the emotional scar or wound in the first scenes of a book, that means you, the writer have to know quite a few things in order to pull that off.
You have to have a fairly firm grasp of both the internal and external character/plot arcs in your novel. If you don’t understand what is emotionally driving your characters’ actions, then you can’t show it to the reader. See, the thing is, people don’t set off to join the cheerleading squad, be the star of the soccer team, find out what’s inside that spooky house at the end of the street, or become queen bee of 4th grade just because. While those are excellent external plots—lots of pro-active actions a protagonist can take towards those goals—there are usually internal reasons that propel a person to pursue those goals, and that’s what I think can be missing in so many books, and more specifically, in so many openings.
We need to know why THIS scenario is so meaningful for THIS kid, above and beyond other kids who have found themselves in similar situations. Without seeing a glimpse of the emotional impetus that drives them—or at least seeing evidence that something is driving them emotionally, then even the most physically suspenseful, action-packed opening can feel flat and lifeless.
Think of all those women out there who aren’t big sports fans, would never spend a minute watching any sporting event on TV, yet if you put THEIR kid on the field, their emotional involvement is suddenly way up and they are rabidly involved in the game. You want your readers to have that same emotional connection with the characters in your story so that they care deeply about what happens to them
So one of the most helpful tools in getting all these elements on the page is the ol’ goal, motivation, and conflict trio. You should know both the internal and external GMC for your main character, and find ways to make sure you get it on the pate. You don’t need to have all those elements in the first scene—in fact that would be TMI. You want to seduce the reader along, raising questions, creating empathy, and making them curious enough that they keep turning the page.
Then try to couple that with compelling situations, such as…
Have the character be in undeserved trouble
Have the character do something nice
Have them be funny
Put the character in physical or emotional jeopardy
Show them as skilled or intelligent or plucky
Show them in conflict with someone or their surroundings
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Her goal in that first scene is to keep her father safe from whatever curses might be on the Bastet statue. This is a solid encapsulation of her larger goal of keeping her family safe in general. Her external motivation is also made clear, that she is the only one who can see these curses, therefore she is the only one who can deal with them. It also, hopefully, hints at her emotional scar or wound—she is left having to take care of the adults around her in very dangerous circumstances because no one would be inclined to believe her should she dare to explain about the curses. The scene (hopefully) also hints at her emotional abandonment by illustrating just how much she’s left on her own both physically and in a coping sense. Also, she’s in conflict with both her surroundings (curses) the adults around her, she’s in undeserved trouble for trying to protect her father from the curses, and she’s plucky and intelligent.
In Harry Potter, his initial goal is just to endure the Dursleys. Instead of seeing the emotional scars, we actually witness the actions that cause these scars, which is equally, if not more effective, but it can be very hard to do in a way that doesn’t load the opening of the book with backstory. So Harry’s grim circumstance is the motivation for his first goal, to find out what is in that mysterious letter that shows up and opens a whole new world to Harry, one the Dursleys don’t want him to explore. This is also where conflict is introduced. Harry defies the Dursleys and tries to get at the letter to discover this mystery about himself. Harry is shown in lots of undeserved trouble, he’s plucky, he’s in conflict with everyone in his family, he tries to do something nice for the snake at the zoo (commiserate) and clearly he’s in emotional jeopardy by living with these horrible people.
In My Big Sister is so Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book, Effie is shown in a wildly unfair power balance with her sister. Like Rowling, Herhsey does a good job of showing us the actions that cause Effie’s scar tissue, right in that first scene with her sister (motivation for the subsequent events). Even if Effie can’t articulate her goal, the reader can sense she needs to get out from under her sister’s thumb and get some justice. In fact, that whole first scene nicely sets up her internal goal: Get out from under Maxey’s overbearing ways, Motivation: because she’s steamrolling over Effie all the time, Conflict: Maxey’s got such a strong personality, and Effie doesn’t have the personal strength or fortitude—yet—to get her to back off. But Effie is funny, she’s in undeserved trouble with both her mother and her big sister, she’s waaaay plucky, plus there’s that big secret/lie thing she mentions, right up front.
Tomorrow – what to do if you can’t get the main external plot elements to start in that first scene, and how to make a quiet, mousy, withdrawn protagonist likeable, or at least empathetic.