Deadly Story Openers: How to Fix a Boring Characteristic Moment

Deadly Story Openers: How to Fix a Boring Characteristic Moment

This week’s video points out the important duties of a good characteristic moment in your book’s first chapter—and how you can write one that both hooks readers and launches a great plot.

Video Transcript:

There’s a ton of stuff the beginning of your story has to do and do well, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that perhaps the single most important one of these things is the characteristic moment.

Now, the characteristic moment is your protagonist’s introduction. But it’s more than just an introducing of the character. It’s not a blasé hi, how are you, nice to meet you. It’s do-or-die-make-a-first-impression-that-counts time. Because if you introduce your protagonist in a blasé way, readers are instantly going to assume he’s a blasé character.

Okay, so you introduce your character in an awesome way that convinces readers he’s an awesome person. The tricky part here is that you’ve got to do this in a way that directly matters to the plot. You can’t just come up with a random scene of awesomeness and throw it in there.

Whatever happens in this opening characteristic moment has to do more than illustrate the fundamental key to your character’s personality and arc. It also has to affect every single scene that follows, or at least be a scene that will be referenced in an important way later in the story. That’s tough to pull off.

If you want an example of a great characteristic moment, look no farther than the beginning of Justified, which opens in medias res without so much as a throat clearing.

Justified Raylan Givens Timothy Olyphant Fire in the Hole Episode 1 Season 1 First Scene

The deputy marshal protagonist walks in, baits a nasty crime lord into pulling a gun, and shoots him without batting an eye. It’s a riveting scene that completely encompasses the heart of the character and his personal dilemmas and demons.

And just as importantly, it’s not a scene that lives in a vacuum. It sets up his move back to his hometown in Kentucky, and it launches a conflict with the mobsters—and the investigating government—that will dog him throughout.

It is beautiful—and darn near perfect. It’s the exact type of characteristic moment we should all be striving to create in our own stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you introduced your protagonist in your work-in-progress’s characteristic moment? Tell me in the comments!

Deadly Story Openers: How to Fix a Boring Characteristic Moment

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent post! The opening scene in Justified might be one of the most memorable opening scenes I’ve ever seen in a tv show. And you’re right, it perfectly captures who the protagonist is and why we’re going to like this through out the ENTIRE series.

    This idea of an opening is going to stick with me. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! The day I write a characteristic moment as good as this one, I’ll be a happy writer.

  2. Oh God, yeah! I remember being kinda on the fence about whether I wanted to get invested in that story though I did love Timothy Olyphant as an actor. But as soon as I saw that moment in the show I was…well…Hooked 😀 And, needless to say, you’re absolutely right. I’ve put down so many books–from A-list authors and newcomers alike–because there was nothing that overly engaged me about a character or situation from the start. Same for movies and shows and everything in between.

  3. Awesome post! I open my current story with my character doing something that I’m not sure if it advances the plot. If he wasn’t doing that action though, the next event wouldn’t have so much impact on the readers. Do you think this is okay?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like the first even leads right into the second, so I’d say it sounds like it’s advancing the plot.

  4. YoungAuthor says:

    Amazing post. I just now realized that though my first chapter has characteristic moment, it’s kind of just “there” and not exactly relevant to the plot. This is definitely something I’ll have to think about!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The good part of all this is that characteristic moments are always fun to write!

  5. Great post! Gives me food for thought 🙂 The opening scene in my current WIP is written with my protagonist running from soldiers through the woods, with plans to develop the story forwards and backwards chronologically from there. I need to go over what I’ve written again to make sure her personality shines through though, and that the scene connects to the rest of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In my experience, characteristic moments usually only begin to pop in the revisions. It’s hard to ace them in the beginning, when you’re still just getting a feel for your character on the page.

      • Joe Long says:

        I was 60k words in when I fully realized the MC’s relationship with his father (modeled after my own experiences) was the biggest subplot, but had only really been “told” in the first chapter and never really shown.

        Now, in a process that reminds me of TV shows or movies needing to go back and film extra scenes, I’m back to chapter one and two adding in details and even completely new scenes that don’t change the storyline, but help to further develop the characters of both the protagonist and his father, showing some depth to understand their relationship.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I outline extensively–but even with that step, I always discover new things during the first draft that I need to go back and change.

  6. Joe Long says:

    The first thing I thought of when you referenced the opening scene from “Justified” is that these characters have been living their lives, they have a backstory, and we are choosing an interesting or even pivotal point in time to start telling a story about a certain part of their life.

    Similar to “Justified”, the other day I watched the first episode of the BBC crime procedural “Luther”. The title character, a Detective Chief Inspector in Homicide, allows a serial killer to die once the young girl he kidnapped was rescued. That act, and everyone else’s reaction to it, sets up the character of the DCI. He’s brilliant, but with severe anger issues. It took him many months to be reinstated to his job where he has to prove he still belongs.

    For my WIP, I was early in the first act when I decided upon a much more gripping event to begin the third act, which then led back to the opening scene.

    I start by quoting song lyrics which express the authors deep regrets about having wronged someone and how it’s nearly impossible to apologize. The narrator then tells about how deeply he’s been hit by the death of his middle aged female cousin, much more so than would be expected, and how it’s something he can’t explain to his wife.

    The rest of the story is told as a flash back, as if the MC is then relating the backstory to someone other than his wife. What was his prior relationship with his cousin that he can’t share? What did he do to her? Why can’t he forgive himself?

    I worry that some of these may be fading away towards the end of the second act, but then the events that begin the third, when The Truth slaps the protagonist in the face, may jar the readers back from a comfort zone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t seen Luther, but I’ve had an eye on it. Love Idris Elba. Sounds like their opening did a very good job setting up an interesting character as well.

  7. Garrett says:

    Breaking Bad anybody (for Walter White’s character intro)?

    I do think that scene from Justified is a very strong example of a MC character introduction.

    Any other shows come to mind that stick in anyone’s memory, regarding their intro?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t seen Breaking Bad, but I hear so many good things about it. Honestly, it’s hard to beat Justified‘s opening though. Nothing else that even comes close is popping to mind.

      • So much to love about this series, but the character study (and not just for the anti-hero!) is just fascinating.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’m just finishing the first season now. It’s definitely got lots of meaty, juicy things left to explore!

    • More happens in the first episode in breaking bad then in most seasons of day time television.

  8. Bloodline is one of the best dark dramas I’ve seen since Breaking Bad, and has a similarly intense opening scene, rife with flash forwards and glimmers of secrets to come, and a grave monologue spoken over images of a stunning Florida Keys beach. It’s almost noirish feeling, how he says that “terrible things are going to happen to beautiful people in a beautiful place”, which commands our attention and also establishes the setting as important as this faceless narrator. I learned so much about pacing and building suspense from this series and can’t recommend enough!

  9. Creativity will show in this matter.

  10. I love these little views at a specific point of the novel. It drives me crazy (am I doing this right? I don’t think I’m doing this right. No, wait, of course I am. My writing’s the epitome of perfection. But she says here to do this. Am I actually doing this?) and has taught me quite a lot. So thanks!
    Hmm… What do you call that first tip of those first invisible dominos, the fall of which only becomes visible at the inciting event? You might say the beginning of my story is precisely that. Our headmistress and POV character is interviewing someone, and decides, despite a few misgivings, to take him on at the school. You might call him the indirect cause of all her subsequent troubles (as well as being, very often, the solution.)
    In that first scene, if I’m getting it right, their different characters are laid bare in the job interview.
    Not quite as dramatic and eye-popping as “Justified”, but then, I don’t want the reader to know EVERYTHING about my male MC just yet. Part of the story is exploring who he really is beyond the facade. I rather like my opening lines, though (I’ll probably tweak them later to make them awesome instead of kinda neat):
    “Yvonne sipped her tea and stared at the man on the other side of her desk. All her instincts screamed at her to dismiss him. ”
    Hopefully, readers now want to know what exactly is prompting her to feel that way, and whether she really will dismiss him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That tip of the iceberg–that first domino–in the first chapter is your story’s Hook. It’s the little tease that hints at the major conflict to come–while also introducing character and all that other good stuff.

  11. Man….I love that Miami gun thug scene like it was my high school sweetheart.

    I enjoyed this post; it gave me a lot of clarity.

    I have always said that there were two types of effective prologues—one that introduces the plot problem but not the main character, and one that introduces the main character but not the plot problem.

    John Sandford opens many of his books with the first type, where, for example, an unknown killer sneaks into a house and kills everybody. That is the plot problem the hero must eventually confront when he finally arrives on the scene.

    James Bond films universally open with the second type. Bond is involved in the *previous* mission, and you learn what a badass he is by how he outfights and outsmarts the Evil Minions of Ungoodness. But it is usually totally separate from the main storyline. Only later does the real plot problem arise.

    There are storytelling problems associated with each of these. In each instance, the reader must make a “jump,” either out of one head and into the head of the hero, or out of one story and into the real story. Both types of jumping are liable to interrupt what somebody very smart (John Gardner, I think) called the “fictive dream.” And this can be deadly in the early stages of a story. Your reader may get shaken out of the fictive dream and say, “Hey, that was pretty good, but I’ve got a train to catch.” And then they put down the book.

    Your article made me aware of a third prologue possibility—a scene that introduces the main character as well as one or more plot problems, although probably not the main conflict.

    The Bond openers and the John Sandford openers are both relatively self-contained. The Raylan Givens opener is also fairly self-contained, but it has a lot of spillage, as you pointed out. For one thing, it instigates his problems with the mob, and his banishment to Kentucky. For another, it introduces his hat. 🙂

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the heads-up. I will look for ways to introduce my character to give the scene “spillage.” Self-contained is okay, but if you can make a scene do multiple chores at once, you are—as Charlie Sheen might say—winning!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great thoughts! And it’s worth noting that Raylan’s scene gets to be particularly pertinent since what’s introduced here is an overarching conflict over the course of the series.

  12. Well, my problem is that I have two protagonists, who serve as antagonists to each other and have totally different character arcs (one is a negative corruption arc and the other is a positive change arc). I’ve been uncertain as to which character I should start with.
    My negative corruption arc protagonist, Mara, has her POV open on her trying to befriend a new girl at school and the friendless new girl rebuffing Mara because of Mara’s reputation. Moments later, Mara is approached by a popular girl who tells Mara to stop trying to make friends, since no one is willing to hang out with her because she is destined to kill someone. Mara heatedly refutes that and says she can make her own choices and isn’t controlled by a destiny.
    Ace, my positive change arc character and Mara’s twin brother, is shown briefly in Mara’s POV chapter (which is currently the first one) as being surrounded by friends and being flirted with by a girl who clearly hero-worships him. He is boasting that one day he’ll win the Nobel prize, and then in a manner that clearly indicated he doesn’t want to talk to her, tells Mara he can’t give her a ride home after school and asks if she can make it home anyway. As soon as he answers he turns away to resume boasting to his friends.
    His first POV chapter, which I’d considered his characteristic moment, shows him in mock combat training making reckless strategy decisions and ignoring the good advice of one of his team mates because the team mate has a very bland destiny compared to Ace’s (which is saving a life). That leads to him getting a Pyric victory in the practice combat, with only himself left “alive.” I thought that that illustrated his lie as well as the consequences of it.
    What do you think classifies as Ace’s characteristic moment? Which POV character should I lead with?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plot pacing aside, the best rule of thumb for choosing a POV character is: Which character is going to frame the story? Which character are you going to end with? The character you begin with is a signal to readers about which character they should identify with most strongly, and that’s the character with whom they’re going to want to *end* the story as well. To me, it sounds as if Ace is that character. If so, I think you also get a stronger characteristic moment for him and a more likable one by starting with his chapter.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 3. Here’s an awesome post from K.M. Weiland with some great advice on openings: Deadly Story Openers: How to Fix a Boring Characteristic Moment […]

  2. […] And here’s Katie’s Wednesday vlog: How to write a riveting characteristic moment. […]

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