Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part One

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 TwisterDante’s PeakSan 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.

Homework

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.

Writing Tip of the Week: The Importance of Conflict in Your Story

People generally do all they can to avoid Conflict in their everyday lives. We will often go to great lengths to stay out of situations that make us uncomfortable, make us confront an issue, or even deal with someone who makes us feel anything but peaceful. For the most part, humans prefer a sense of neutrality.

But not in fiction.  

Fiction requires Conflict as an essential ingredient to make a narrative move forward. There has to be something or someone driving the protagonist to act; to get them out of their neutral state and make them work toward a goal that looks impossible to achieve on the surface.

Let’s explore a little about Conflict and its role in fiction.

Conflict = Dramatic Tension

Your protagonist wants something. Another character wants something else. Only one of them can get what they want in the scene or chapter. And so, this Conflict creates Dramatic Tension between the two characters, and – hopefully – the Conflict and dramatic tension pique the audiences’ interest. Who will get what they want? How will they negotiate to get what they want? What are they willing to do or say to achieve their goal?  

Watch any film or TV show, and you will see this played out on either a small or a larger level. If you watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – or most procedurals – you can see this play out in almost every scene. There is a conflict between the detectives over how to interrogate a suspect. There’s Conflict between the suspect and the detectives interrogating them. There’s Conflict while a witness is being questioned. All of which creates Dramatic Tension and leaves the audience curious and wanting more.

Comedy is also rife with Conflict. Yes, Dramatic Tension does exist in sitcoms and comedy movies as well. It’s what helps keep the story moving forward and the audience engaged. On I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo wants to be in a TV commercial. Her husband, Ricky, says she can’t do it. A Conflict between the two characters has now been created. It then evolves into Dramatic Tension, which in this case is played for laughs.

Conflict Isn’t Always Good vs. Evil

When we picture Conflict, we think of Batman vs. The Joker or some other large-scale epic showdown between good and evil. But that is not the case. While this is a clear-cut example, conflicts are often between best friends, or kids and parents, or employees and employers.  

Maybe the characters just have a minor disagreement about how to punish their child for their bad behavior. Perhaps it’s a conflict between and father and son over what type of first job the son should apply for. Small conflicts between characters that aren’t an explosive battle of wills destroying Gotham City can be just as impactful, just as exciting, and just as engaging.

Conflict Should Be Organic

The source of the Conflict that occurs should have sense and logic to it within the story you are telling. Have you ever watched an action movie where a car chase or bar fight just happens for no reason? If there’s no reason for the Conflict to arise, it feels forced and out of place.

All characters want or need something. When your characters each want something different, a conflict is formed. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wants the Infinity Stones to achieve his goal. The Avengers have an opposing goal: stop Thanos from acquiring the Infinity Stones. It’s a basic conflict, but it makes sense and is logical within the confines of the story being told.

There should be a reason for Conflict to exist at that moment in the story. If there’s no conflict present, figure out why and what’s causing a lack of Conflict between the characters involved. At the same time, don’t force Conflict to happen. If you cut the scene or chapter, would it impact the story?  

Conflict Ups the Stakes for the Protagonist

Imagine a story where nothing goes wrong for the protagonist. No matter what, everything goes right. Now, take that same character on her way to a big job interview, when someone runs into her, shoves a device in her hand, and seconds later, the office building she was headed to explodes and collapses. As she comes back to the reality of the chaos around her, she discovers there’s a detonator in her hand. Her fingerprints are all over it. Someone notices the device in her hand and calls out. Panicked, she gets up and runs.

She’s now wrongly accused of blowing up a building that she was headed to, with her fingerprints on the detonator and people screaming that she caused the explosion.

Talk about Conflict and Upping the Stakes!

While this is an extreme example, giving the protagonist a – even to them – life and death situation to deal with gives them motivation to achieve a goal despite the odds. Katniss in The Hunger Games ups the stakes on herself when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. The stakes continue to mount as the games continue, and she must do all she can to survive—plenty of Conflict.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods wants to go to Harvard Law School. Based on what we know about Elle at this point in the film, even we think she’s creating stakes that seem impossible.  

Both The Hunger Games and Legally Blonde show us two strong protagonists actively putting themselves into situations where the stakes could not be higher for either one of them. The stakes up the Conflict, which increases the Dramatic Tension, which keeps the audience engaged.

Internal and External Conflict

Characters can have inner conflicts, wants, needs, desires, and motivations. These can help add dimension to a character and help lead to their growth and arc through the narrative.  

External conflicts are opposing forces outside the inner life of the character.  

In Lethal Weapon (1987), Sergeant Martin Riggs is depressed and suicidal (Internal Conflict) after the death of his wife (External Conflict). His new partner, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, is melancholy about his age and retiring from the LAPD (Internal Conflict). He is not very happy to be saddled with a new partner who’s a live wire (External Conflict). Two characters with conflicting internal and external conflicts then have to face a conflict even larger than them. No wonder the movie was such a hit!

Giving your characters Internal Conflicts that must be dealt with during their External Conflicts is an excellent way to up the Stakes and add to the overall Dramatic Tension.

Creating Conflict between characters in your writing is a fun way to see how your protagonist and others respond to someone entering their space and destabilizing the neutral world they – like all of us in the real world – so desperately desire. Take a few of your characters and write a couple pages of Conflict between them and see if you discover anything new about them.

And, the next time you watch a movie, a TV show, or read a novel, observe what the Conflict is in each scene, what the stakes are, and how those conflicts and stakes lead to the dramatic tension in both the scene and the narrative as a whole.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!