As I know you know, most fiction is based on a simple formula: you take an interesting character, give him a backstory, and then introduce a problem. It turns his world upside down. During the course of the novel, the protagonist struggles to restore equilibrium to his life/world; at times the reader doubts whether he’ll make it, but these struggles build to a climax at which there is a turning point or a denouement. At the end of the story a new constant has been put in place, reflecting the change the character has undergone. Everything that happens points at or points back to that issue (you’ll hear it called the conflict, too, or the “story-worthy problem”) the protagonist has to deal with in order to have peace again.
In modern story structure, we don’t spend much time on developing the stable world, the backstory. We’ll reveal it as we go along, as it is needed. We introduce the story-worthy problem (since the protagonist may not be aware of it), or bring it to the surface, by means of an “inciting incident”—something happens to the protagonist to make him or her aware that there’s trouble on the horizon. This happens in the first chapter.
But lots of things need to happen in that all-important first chapter. And it never fails to astound me when I read a ho-hum chapter that is just moving me to the chapter 2 (or 3 or 5), where the action will kick in and we’ll be off to the races. No. In this competitive publishing climate, you’ve got to make every word count, right out of the gate.
Here’s what I look for:
• A fabulous first line and an intriguing first paragraph.
In other words, stimulate my senses, excite me, make me care, grab my attention! You can do this with a unique voice, use of language or action, and so on. Be clever: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” (from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis).
• Location, time of year, and when in history the story takes place.
Ground me in the setting. You don’t have to say “it was April 14, 2001” but I like to know when and where I am in every sense of those words. Use sensory language. Your protagonist can shiver in winter or smell the honeysuckle in the summer, for example.
• Who my protagonist is.
I want to get a sense of him/her. It should be someone I can like, identify with, or even someone I can hate, but I need to know this person. Again, an interesting voice is one way to accomplish this.
• I want to like my protagonist or at least sympathize with his/her predicament.
Of course, it may be the antagonist who gets introduced first, in which case you’ve given me someone to dislike or mistrust, but more than likely it’ll be the protagonist. Don’t leave me scratching my head.
• A sense of what the protagonist’s problem/inciting incident will be.
The conflict doesn’t always show up in the first chapter. But if it doesn’t, I at least want a hint.
• A sense of how the protagonist got into this mess.
Not a long backstory, but enough to arouse my empathy or intrigue me. The rest can and should come as we go along; in fact most how-to books on fiction these days say don’t introduce backstory in the first twenty-five pages or so.
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
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