Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oh, where to start!

Two weeks ago I talked about figuring out what POV you should start writing a book in. BTW I forgot one really good example of 1st person POV and that is the “Stainless Steel Rat” series by Harry Harrison.

After figuring out what POV to write your book in, you have to figure out where the story starts. This is one of the hardest decisions in writing and also the most important one if you want to capture the readers attention. Luckily there is only one place to start a story, with several variations.


People at rest tend to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force. When your main character hits something that changes his life that starts the story. The beginning of the story needs to take place somewhere near this incident. How close depends on the type of story you are telling.


If you want people to relate to your main character the story has to begin shortly before triggering incident and at the decision that main character made that brought him to the incident. In THE PIZZA DIARIES retitled AN EXTRA TOPPING OF HORROR I originally started at the triggering incident where my main character saves the damsel in distress. It seemed logical, but he really didn't have any choices to make unless he was a true bastard. There was a naked woman dazed in the road. Unless he was a total psychopath he had no choice but to help her. As a result for the entire first chapter he was pushed along by the events that happened. That shaped the readers impression of him as someone who just got pushed along through life. So I had to start earlier.

I had to start at the decision that brought him out there in the first place. An order came in from a man that he had a bad history with. He was given the choice of passing it to his co-worker, Kyle, who had plans that would be ruined by taking the order, or taking the delivery. So he had make a decision that showed he was a half way decent person. Not terribly noble, but considerate of his co-workers. It was the type of choice that people are faced with all the time so the reader can relate.

By starting with an ordinary decision the reader can then see how the same decision making process plays out when he is faced with really extraordinary circumstances.


If your book is focused on the action then the story starts right after the triggering incident in the middle of the action it caused. Then it backs up to the incident, preferably through dialog. This lets the reader know to focus on the action.


The main motivator in porn and romance, someone has a desire for something they may not even know what it is. The trigger is when they see a chance of having that desire satisfied. If your story is about someone's quest to achieve something then you should show the longing that was inside them before the triggering event.

This example will seem strange but bear with me (or if you are naked, bare with me):

2001: A Space Odyssey. The story starts with the caveman “Moon Watcher”, um, watching the Moon. He longs for humans to be able to great things like find a tree high enough to touch the Moon. He also dreams of a time when humans will be safe from predators and well fed. The triggering incident comes when the Monolith lands and transforms them into a species that has the tool, a brain, to satisfy that longing. 10,000 years later his dream comes true.


If you are really good or lucky all those events happen at the same time. The incident forces the main character to make a decision and leap into action that satisfies a longing. Chances are that won't happen. Rather than try and force the incident to fill all these things in the first page (something that is really obvious and usually awful) it is best to find the part about the incident that will shape the impression you want the reader to have.


While writing this I have an awful nagging in the back of my mind that I am missing a key part of the triggering incident, but I can't think of what. Somebody enlighten me in the comments so I can do a face palm as soon as I read it.


  1. As you know, I'm a character-driven writer, so I usually start with what I think of as a "character defining moment," a scene that introduces the reader to key facets of the main character(s) in the book. If more than one character is showcased, so is the relationship between them, as sharply and completely as I can without boring the pants off the reader.

    With Curse of the Jenri, it was Layla rescuing her husband because her bad-assery was essential to who she was and how she acted. His acceptance of her badassery was key to Tander, on many levels. That there were very traditional man-saves-wife elements later in the book didn't change the fact Layla ain't no DID. (Actually, men running to the rescue of women who have just effectively rescued themselves is a favorite theme, but I digress).

    Beast Within, it was the interaction between Xander, his despised foster brother and his best friend, as well as what they were most worried about during a crisis, which happened to be the triggering incident.

    Catspaw, it was a showcasing of Laren's weakest points so clearly defined even he decided to fix them. If you think of Catspaw as character development, it was a triggering incident in his maturation, even if it were minor compared to the triggering incidents to follow.

    For Saving Tessa, it was a relatively quiet scene to showcase the relationship. For Tarot Queen, it was the inciting incident, i.e. happening upon one another.

    I do like to put these scenes as close as possible to the triggering incident, sometimes even after the incident occurred, even if my characters aren't aware of it yet.

  2. I hate to correct you on your own novel, but if I remember right, The Beast Within started immediately after Xander made the decision for the three of them to give up their jumpseats and you gave insight into their characters by having them state the different reasons each one decided on that decision.
    It was how each one made that decision that gave the reader insight into their characters. Xander = noble Laren = not to be one upped and Rem = Tag along.
    That decision at the beginning of the book shaped the readers view of them for the rest of the book. It was a decision that the reader can relate to and seeing how each one came to that decision form the readers first impressions of your characters.

  3. Actually, they were on a ship in a battle that flung 'em across the universe that was making Laren, at least, rethink his decision to give up his jumpseat. They were all really noble but how they viewed their decisions and each others gave insight into their natures and their relationships.

    But that's all part of the interaction. I wanted to stress that fear of the unknown and death was almost overshadowed by fear of their secret being found out because it's key to the rest of the book.

    I love a scene that multitasks.