Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives. Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.
Let’s get started.
Where Are We? Location, Location, Location.
The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come. Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances. Is this a contemporary story? Are we in Victorian England? In a galaxy far, far away? Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story. Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time. The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.
Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.
Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?
Whose journey are we following? Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold. What’s their name? Their profession? What relationships do they have? What conflicts do they have in their lives? What’s their personality?
In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14). These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:
• Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)
• An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)
• Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)
• Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)
• Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)
• In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)
• Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)
• Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)
• Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)
These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:
Active or Passive Protagonist?
In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active. This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal. Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him. Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him. His actions move the story in a new direction.
Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery. She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.
A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening. Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others. When you watch Twister, Dante’s Peak, San Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.
What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues? What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it? They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.
Is It Really “The Beginning”?
A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element. We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life.
You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming. We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.
A character’s story is on a continuum. What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary. Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…
What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.
Things are pretty normal for your main character. They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse. This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.
Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead. Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth. It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.
Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.
Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced. How does the main character react when something new happens? What’s the first thing they do? How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward? What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?
Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.