Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Four Essential Elements to Every Beginning – and Six More You May Need

About six months ago I downloaded into my Kindle six free books on writing. One of them was Les Edgerton’s Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs The Reader at Page One and Never Lets Go. I could kiss Amazon’s feet for this find! It’s been far more useful to me than Noah Lukeman’s classic The First Five Pages.

OK, every writer knows that the beginning is crucial. If an agent or editor doesn’t like your first page – forget five pages – out it goes. Where Edgerton differs from Lukeman is that he explains, in great detail and with lots of examples, HOW to create that winning opening scene. Plus, he gives you the exceptions to the rule and how to recognize and deal with them.

So what does your opening scene need to have? Edgerton lists ten components:
1) Inciting incident
2) Story-worthy problem
3) Initial surface problem
4) The set-up
5) Backstory
6) A stellar opening sentence
7) Language
8) Character
9) Setting
10) Foreshadowing

The first four are crucial, the remaining are optional.

1) Inciting Incident. The inciting incident is what sets the story in motion. It’s an event, not a situation. It upsets the equilibrium of the protagonist’s world and makes her realize she has a problem.

2) Story-Worthy Problem. The story-worthy problem is Edgerton’s term for what romance writers often call the internal conflict. It’s the flaw in the protagonist’s outlook or personality that needs to be changed in order for the protagonist to achieve his/her goal.

3) Initial Surface Problem. The initial surface problem is the protagonist’s immediate goal It’s the problem sparked by the inciting incident and demanding immediate action. For example, in The Hobbit (which I just saw – marvelous movie!), Bilbo Baggin’s surface problem is whether to accept the contract offered to him by the dwarves.

4) Set-Up. The set-up is just that, enough details to make clear what is happening in the opening scene. It gives the reader enough information on where and when the action is taking place and who the characters are. That much, and no more.

Every opening has to have those four elements. But what about the remaining elements Edgerton lists? Whether you include them depends on the story you’re telling.

5) Backstory. Every writer knows too much backstory kills your beginning. But how much is too much? Edgerton says, if possible, save the backstory for later chapters. Include just enough background information to keep the reader from becoming confused, but nothing more.

6) A stellar opening sentence. I’m sort of puzzeled by why Edgerton considers this secondary, since he says, “Spend an awful lot of time on this sentence.” (One of the delights of Edgerton’s book, by the way, is his chatty style.) This is the sentence that grabs the reader. On the other hand, no matter how good the opening sentence, if it’s not backed by the other four crucial elements, the reader isn’t going to read past the first scene.

7) Language. I thought Edgerton was going to talk about that elusive term “voice” here, but actually he focuses more on how you craft your language. Which is part of voice, but feels to me more like Creative Writing 101.

8) Character. The opening merely introduces your characters. It doesn’t give their life stories. But the key is “show, not tell.” The inciting incident is the tool by which you start to reveal character through the charcters’ reactions as the incident unfolds.

9) Setting. Too much setting bogs down a beginning, but carefully selected details of setting, worked into the action itself, make it come alive.

10) Foreshadowing. A good beginning will hint at the ending.

So there it is: a checklist, a way of looking at the first chapter of my WIP and making sure “it’s all there”.