Character: The Most Important Part of Your Story’s Beginning

If all of writing was as difficult as the first 50 pages, I probably would have wimped out years ago and found myself a new vocation. (Something easy and safe—like being a Walmart greeter or maybe the collector of the quarters from Laundromat machines.) Despite the fact that I already know every plot turn that will arrive in the pages to come, and that I’ve sketched my characters down to the most obscure detail, and that I’ve probably even imagined the half-dozen splendid panegyrics that will appear on the glossy back cover—writing those first fifty pages is always a foray into dangerous and unknown territory.

4 Qualities of a Strong Beginning

It’s no wonder, of course, that beginnings are difficult when you consider their weight in the overall story. Beginnings must accomplish all of the following:

1. Give the readers a reason to care about what happens to the characters.

2. Plant an irresistible hook.

3. Introduce overall tone (satiric, dramatic, etc.).

4. Introduce setting (time and place), conflict, and theme.

In short, the beginning of every story is rather like a résumé. You flaunt your talents and skills and hope the reader finds what he’s looking for. Otherwise, you’re never going to make it off the bookstore shelf.

No problem, you say. I’ve got great characters and a killer plot. All I have to do is start writing. Unfortunately, I’ve never met anyone who actually could just do that, although I suppose it’s reasonable to suppose that the planet does possess a few such blessed writers. All I know is I’m not one of them. For me, as for the majority of novelists no matter their skill levels, beginnings are a tight-rope act. And it’s a long fall to the bottom if you miss your step.

So how, pray tell, does one go about avoiding that fatal misstep? Well, you write and you rewrite. And then you repeat. Not what you were hoping to hear? Me neither. So in the interest of keeping us both happy, allow me to throw out a few helpful suggestions regarding what makes a beginning a success.

The Secret Ingredient to a Successful Story Beginning

Utilize character in beginnings. Beginnings are all about character. If the reader doesn’t find your character interesting, why should he stick around to follow this same boring character through the next three-hundred pages, no matter how brilliant your final plot twist may be? Ultimately, people read fiction because of character. They aren’t going to waste their time on characters that aren’t brimming with life—and neither should we as writers. From the very first page, we have to give the readers a character they won’t be able to get out of their heads. But more important than just imbuing our cast with scintillating personalities and rapid-fire wit (although never underestimate either of these), is giving the reader a reason to care about the characters.

Why Action Alone Is No Match for Character

Young authors are often encouraged to begin with action. Apparently, the theory is that if you throw an obvious protagonist into a harrowing situation, the reader will love him just because he’s in trouble. Not so. Someone in trouble may elicit a sympathetic response from me on a surface level. But to make me really be concerned about what happens to this person I first have to care about him.

Let’s say we pick up a story that begins in the middle of a fistfight. Probably we will be at least marginally interested in what the fight is about. But we aren’t going to particularly care about who wins the fight unless we care about one of contestants. Beginning the story with a fistfight is definitely a good idea (as opposed to, say, opening with the protagonist warming up before the fight), but unless you throw in a reason to make the reader care, you’re probably sunk.

For years, I struggled with the idea of adding narrative to my openings. The “call to action,” as it were, became a major stumbling block for me. My gut kept telling me that I needed to introduce a character, not an event. I fought the idea, thinking that I’d lose the reader’s attention if I slowed down long enough to sketch a few important details about the protagonist. But it dawned on me, as I pondered this question, that I had never been turned off by a few artfully placed paragraphs of narrative in a beginning’s opening. In fact, it was the straight action openings that completely turned me off.

Don’t get me wrong: action (aka conflict) and suspense is the heart of any story and definitely an essential factor in a successful beginning. But, without a strong character introduction, they aren’t going to be worth very much by themselves.

How to Open With Character

I am adamant that this one facet of the beginning is the single most important factor, not just in opening a story, but in setting the tone for the entirety of the tale to follow. So what’s the best way to introduce this dazzling character of yours without overloading the reader with unnecessary facts? Following is a very non-exclusive list of suggestions that can be used, in any order and any combination,

Name the Character

Give the reader a name to build on. It’s easier to sucker someone into caring for a character when we know his name. Obviously, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, since numerous first-person narratives don’t name their characters outright (such as Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, in which the main character is never named at all).

Behold the Dawn, a novel of the Third Crusade by K.M. WeilandShow the Character in a “Classic Moment.”

If possible, use the opening scene to exemplify a part of the character’s personality that will play a vital role later on. For instance, in Behold the Dawn, I introduce my character in the middle of one of the great tourney battles in which he competes.

Exemplify Attitude

Show the reader, through your character’s words, actions, and internal narrative, how he views the world. Is he a cynic? An idealist? How does he view the conflict on which the story has opened?

Granted, character is only half of the delicate balancing act presented in a story’s beginning. A good character in a boring story is still going to be about as flat as yesterday’s soda. But if you can master the art of character introduction, you’ve already licked three-quarters of the battle.

Tell me your opinion: What is your character doing in your opening scene?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. This is a great reminder. I’ve oftentimes taken the in media res to an extreme.

  2. When we hear certain “rules” (such as in medias res) hammered at us so often, it’s ridiculously to overreact and take them too far. Rocking back to center and finding that perfect balance is what it’s all about.

  3. thank you so much for all your posts! your blog is a goldmine (which may be why i’ve started reading so far back in your archives lol)! this year, as i’m a junior in highschool, my cousins and I are writing novels for english class. all your tips have really helped me to get mine started!

  4. So glad you’re enjoying the posts!

  5. Another (very) helpful article. I loved the journal entries. Good to see an established writer has the same misgivings about beginnings as I do. Keep up the good work!

  6. The day a writer stops have misgivings is the day you know something is wrong! That sense of doubt keeps us balanced and keeps us searching.

  7. I try to remember to start with psychological tension/conflict instead of physical. Since my focus is rarely the plot-side of things, it makes the wrong promise if I lead off with that. I never thought about it as starting with character, but it is and that’s something that will probably make my inciting-incident stories a whole lot easier to revise.

    When four editors love a short but ALL hate the opening, you know you did it wrong. :shakes head ruefully at self:

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beta readers are always vital in figuring out weaknesses. We can convince ourselves that something works fine, but we can never escape the facts when readers say simply, “Nope, didn’t work for me.”

  8. Great strategies here. Those first 50 pages are so important. On my lasted WIP I’ve edited and edited to really hone the voice, personality and setting. It is a game of making sure all the pieces fit together so it flows and captivates. Hard to do. But, it can be done. At least that is what I keep telling myself. 🙂

  9. He’s staring out at a mob while the love of his life is telling him they will probably go to prison. My problem is that my protag is a wealthy Wall St. executive. He’s not hungry or abused. He’s simply watching his world crash down around him. Hopefully, I can make a reader feel empathy with him before the end of the opening scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We almost always want to make our character relatable. Wall St. execs aren’t the most relatble folks on the planet for the Normal Joe reader, but watching a world crash down is definitely relatable.

  10. Steve Mathisen says:

    Excellent, excellent information here. In fact I can use this information right away to strengthen what I am writing right now. Panegyrics aside, you have the ability to cut to the chase with advice. You take sometimes complex concepts and boil them down to their essence in a way that even beginners (like me) can use. Thanks! 🙂

  11. I’ve been struggling with this in my current WIP. The main issue is that it’s the second book in the series and the first book ends on a major cliff hanger. Starting in medias res seems too abrupt and I want an opening that mirrors the ending. I’ll be trying your suggestions to see which fits best. ^_^

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s valuable to note that cliffhangers don’t just make for tricky endings, they make for tricky beginnings in the next book as well. But your instincts are good here. Most books in a series come out with months or even years between installments, so readers are going to need a bit of padding to remind them of details and to ease them back into the story.

  12. One quibble: you say defining a character is half of the delicate balancing act in the opening, but also three quarters of the battle.

    This is English major math, isn’t it?!

  13. Agreed. Starting in midst of action always pops so many questions in ones head that it end up baing confusing.
    And I have rarely stumbled up on other ways that work. Characters, I guess may turn out to be a good way to get readers in it. And if the character is strong, he himself can be the hooker.

  14. Jim Arnold says:

    After reading this, Katie, I’m too embarrassed to tell you my opening scene. I have to re-write the first chapter to give it some personality and make the protagonist more likable. In the first chapter, he seems like a lump. But as the story goes on, you read what he’s really about. (The hook just shouldn’t come in Chapter 3 or 4 now should it?)

    As usual, you never fail to open my eyes to something that needs improving in my stories. and for that, I truly thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t be embarrassed. I’ve written my share of “lump” openings as well. One of the reasons beginnings are so tricky is that we often have to open with the protagonist in a less than adventuresome or less than likable place–so that he can evolve into those things as the story progresses. It’s always a challenge!

  15. An excellent post. I had a rough time of it for a couple of years, because I could never bring myself to start with heavy action, and a great many people like to recite the “rules” of writing. “Never start with X; always start with action!” is such an odd piece of advice that I have to wonder where it came from.

    Right now the main character in my short story is in the middle of an interview, hoping desperately for a chance at employment. That might change later on (right now my only material is a sketch), but that’s the opening scene at the moment. It seems absurdly boring compared to what happens after the interview, but that’s what makes it so exciting! I need to have something to look forward to–if I write all my heavy action at the start of the story then it feels like there’s nothing exciting left.

  16. The character in my novel is on a man hunt to kill someone.
    In fact, by the time I finish chapter one two characters have already been murdered…

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