During the Colorado Gold conference, I picked up three different pieces of advice about how best to start your novel–the first 10 pages, basically. The opener.
Last time, I tackled Advice #1, which is “Don’t write the beginning until the end.” I’m not advocating one approach over another. In fact, I find it difficult to absorb and internalize all three pieces of advice, as they conflict in some ways. I also haven’t entirely figured out how to put all this advice into practice. So take these posts more in the vein of “thinking out loud” as opposed to anything proscriptive.
This time, I’m going to take on Advice #2: “Make sure the inciting incident is in the first few pages (and not in a prologue).”
This advice came from Sara Megibow, of the Nelson Literary Agency, delivered in her excellent workshop at the Gold Conference. However, I’m challenged by this one too. I understand that she was aiming her comments at aspiring authors like me and her advice was designed to help new authors avoid some of the things that get them chucked out of the slush pile. I’ve seen enough first 20 pages from my stints judging contests that I can understand where the advice comes from: an attempt to instill some discipline around the right amount of setup or backstory. A story should begin with action, not exposition. I get that.
But let’s take Joe in my fantasy story. The inciting incident is an attack on a Gatekeeper, whose death sets the whole story in motion. This beginning definitely meets the criteria of inciting incident. Without a prologue, this incident would not happen until approximately page 18 of my story. With a prologue, it happens on page 4. A better place to fall, but just barely within the bounds of “first few pages.” But my prologue violates the no-prologue rule. I haven’t found a way around that.
Even with my prologue providing the inciting incident in the first four pages, I’m still not convinced that this is the right place to start a story. When you look at mythic story structures, one of the most important parts of the story in a Hero’s Journey is the beginning. It’s a look into the “old world” that the hero currently occupies. It’s a familiar, safe place for the hero, because that is part of what gives the jolt to the inciting incident. Heroes must leave behind the safe, familiar place to go out into an unsafe, unknown world far outside of their comfort zone, whether that journey is literal or internal.
Maybe my challenge here is that I am primarily a Fantasy/Science Fiction writer. In that genre, the familiar, safe world may not be readily recognizable to the reader. And scifi readers do have a bit more patience with openers, because some (subtle, not-overdone) world building is to be expected. When both the old world and the new world are totally unfamiliar, the author has to work harder to convey what’s safe and familiar about the old world before introducing yet another place that is also new to the reader.
Ah, well. More thinking is required. Next time, look for my take on advice #3: Start your story with an opening image that will later serve to contrast with the end and your hero’s change or growth.