So, you’ve made your four key decisions – you have a character, a setting, and you know which tense and point of view you plan to use. You may or may not have outlined your plot, but you want to start writing. Great! Where does your story actually begin? Or, in other words, what should be the first scene in your book?
The best place to begin your book is ‘in media res’ – that is – in the middle of the action. It doesn’t have to be the inciting incident, not right away (and I’ll discuss the inciting incident further below) but we need to see your character doing something. Ideally, they’re doing something that showcases them as an interesting and imperfect protatgonist. Your opening scene must hint at the idea that all is not right in their world. They have internal and external conflicts but is is the inner conflict that keeps them awake at night. In this first scene, we need to see your character do something that manifests their inner-conflict, because this will be the entire point of your book – to see them transform and overcome this conflict, or learn to accept it.
From the get-go, we need to understand your character’s life as it is, and we need to see their world view – either life is good (this is the trickiest to pull off. If life is fine, then there’s nothing much at stake), life is rubbish, or life is somewhere in-between. But most importantly, to engage the reader, you cannot describe or ‘tell’ any of this – you need to show it to the reader via action and dialogue. The character may not necessarily be able to articulate this sense of dissatisfaction; if they already know the answers to the problems with their life, the reader will wonder why they just don’t get on with it and make the necessary changes. This set-up is crucial. If the reader doesn’t understand the latent need or longing in a character’s everyday life, then how will they understand the significance of the inciting incident in that life. Basically, in this early scene (or scenes if necessary) you are establishing motivation and stakes. The motivation tells us ‘why’ the character will be drawn into a transformative journey, and the stakes outline why we should care – that is – it sets a baseline of what the character stands to lose, should they fail in that journey.
In Save the Cat Writes a Novel, author Jessica Brody, suggests that this opening scene (or scenes) is also an opportune time in which to state the theme, or, more specifically to have a secondary character state the theme in the form of a question or observation about the main character. Here, Brody is defining the theme as the life lesson or character’s need, which is a slightly different definition to what you may be familiar with. In any case, the point is well made that it’s useful for a secondary character to point out the main character’s flaw, and for the main character to be completely oblivious to the problem or to deny it strongly. Brody cites the example of Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You in which Camilla Traynor (secondary character) says to Louisa (main character) “What exactly do you want to do with your life?’ This is the crux of the story – Louisa deciding how she wants to live, and love.
Your ‘setup’ scene may in fact be several scenes. It depends on the story you’re trying to tell. But there should at least be a hint of ‘life before’ that comes prior to the inciting incident, or catalyst. This is the event that truly kicks off your novel’s plot. The set-up is important but the inciting incident is where you’ll hook your reader by introducing an external event that changes your protagonist’s life. Ideally, this event has a direct connection to their inner need or conflict. But not always. In police procedurals, the inciting event is the discovery of a body or crime. In romance, it’s the introduction of the love interest.
In her Unpredictable Plotter workshop, author Toni Jordan defines the inciting incident as the dynamic event that upsets the balance of life for the protagonist, or the event that arouses a desire in them. Natasha Lester, in her Plotting Masterclass, says the incident must be something out of the ordinary (hence the importance of establishing the ordinary) that will generally cause the main character to have to leave something behind.
However, the protagonist does not leap from inciting event straight to action. They must be given time to respond emotionally to the event, before they take action or set out on their journey. Therefore, the inciting incident has two parts – the event itself, and the emotional response and reaction. This response, in turn, leads the character to establish a goal that’s plausible and credible. But … goal setting is an entire other post.