Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Background and Setup

How much is too much when starting a book?

In my contemporary fantasy, When the Star Fell (or whatever I end up titling it), I have a bit of a dilemma.

Draft 2, which is the first complete draft of the book, takes until chapter 6 for the status quo upsetting moment to occur.

Draft 6 has that moment occurring in chapter 4.

I've tried to start the book with that moment, but it doesn't work for me.  There are relationships to set up which are actually key to that moment having greater impact.  (At least in my head the way I'm looking at the manuscript.)  And I really have tried to start there.  I wrote a new beginning, which still ended up in this current draft, just in chapter 4 not chapter 1.  I hated it.  It didn't grab me at all when I got to that upset moment.

I've recently received some feedback on the first chapter that has me absolutely waffling.  This reviewer wanted more setup, more descriptions, more scenes happening in the start location.  I haven't told this reviewer yet about the fact that two chapters of it got cut in revisions.

So at what point do you find the balance?  How much setup is too much?  Is it instinctive?  Is it an inherent part of an author's style and voice, whether they start with a bang or ease into it?

For me, I really do prefer easing into it, both when I'm reading and when I'm writing.  I can get engrossed in either form of opening.  It just depends, for me, on whether the action heightens the tension and helps to draw me into the character or if I need to see them in their normal life for a bit to feel the impact of that status quo upsetting moment the way I should.

Rick Riordan's books are a prime example of this.  The Red Pyramid starts a little slower.  The two narrators show you a bit of what their normal is.  Then he gets to the action and the upsetting of status quo.  The Lost Hero jumps right into the crux of one character's arc.  The kid has absolutely no idea where he is or who he is.  This tension would be gone if we'd seen any bit of his normal reality.

Tolkien started off showing you how hobbits celebrate birthdays and what the Shire is like.

Jane Austen jumped right to the meat of it, a mother who wants nothing more than for her daughters to marry well, and one such opportunity has just moved into the neighborhood.

Kiersten White showed just how not normal Evie's normal is before turning her world on its ear.

I could go on, but I won't.  I think what these examples are showing us is that, yes, it is instinctive and dependent on the story being told.  I believe it is part of an author's voice, but more to do with the unique perspective an author brings to any story they write rather than a critical component of that voice.

What about you?  Agree or disagree?  Which do you tend to favor, jumping straight in or easing in?


  1. The best advice I've ever gotten about where a story should start is in Robert McKee's Story (which you should absolutely read). He said that before the Inciting Incident, you should include only what the reader has to know in order to understand the full impact of the Inciting Incident...and no more. And you still need to have a subplot to carry you from the beginning to the Inciting Incident.

    Since I've had that perspective, my openings have been vastly better.

  2. p.s. I hope the writing is going well, fellow Ninja! :)

  3. This is something that I've been thinking a lot about. My current rewrite is the result of this very question. Where does the story start. I had the first draft and readers said it dragged all over the place. Next draft, I started in a completely different spot and wrote with that in mind. Now, in my current draft, I went back to that first draft, cut out the first two chapters, and voila! It's starting in the right place.

    I think the big thing is to know when the pacing drags and when it doesn't. Those books with setup before the inciting incident have good pacing.

  4. Susan already hit on the comment and name I was going to mention -- frm Robert McKee. To go a bit further on the statement, he suggested putting the inciting incident in **as soon as possible but not before** it would realize the full emotional and intellectual potential of the event. That's something you just have to feel out. (I think it also varies a bit from genre to genre. Some really need the incident to happen sooner rather than later.)

    Agent Kristin Nelson said a good rule of thumb was to put it in the first 30-50 pages. But a rule of thumb is a very rough guideline by its very nature. It might work on page 20 or page 70. I think the only thing anyone *vaguely* agrees on is that it should come before (or at least the same time as) the first plot point marking the transition from Act I to Act II.

  5. I've read a good book where the action began within the first few pages. I've read a good book where the inciting incident didn't happen until around page 100. I've read masterpieces of classic literature where I couldn't tell you what the inciting incident was. Maybe there wasn't one. As you pointed out, every story is different and I strongly believe that only you, the author, know how your story should be told.

    Don't rewrite your story based on any reader's feedback. Every reader has a different opinion and none of their opinions are "right". The only "right" way to tell your story is what feels "right" to you, the author. The only time you should rewrite any portion of your book based on feedback is if your editor has asked you to and then only if you've actually got a contract and they're paying you for it.

  6. The advice I received on this issue, was to start your story on the day that is different. However, I do believe that "day" can include some set-up before the incident. But like some of the others said, every story and writing style is different and there really isn't a right answer.

  7. You're doing the right thing by analyzing what other authors do. You've included a wide variety of genres. If I were you, I would look at more recent publications and ones in the same genre as your book and see how it was done. Good luck.

  8. I think Susan hit the nail on the head--you have to have enough info to make the Inciting Incident have the most impact. And you have to go with your gut after you've received plenty of feedback.

    Writing is one darned tricky business!


All content copyright of the author. Please ask permission before re-printing.

Fair use quotations and links do no require prior consent of the author.