Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55: Beginning Your Story Too Late

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55Story beginnings are fraught with important decisions. But perhaps none of those decisions is more important than the question of when to begin your story. Too early or too late—either one can prevent readers from engaging with the story and obsessively reading on to find out what happens.

Perhaps the more common mistake is beginning your story too early (which I’ve talked about before). But beginning your story too late is just as problematic.

As a reader, Abby, commented to me:

In my story, I don’t really have the problem of having started too early. I feel like I haven’t started early enough. The hook I have feels a lot like the inciting event. My protagonist can’t really turn back after the events I start off with, not without great risk. How can I tell if it starts too late?

6 Signs You’re Beginning Your Story Too Late

If you have a sadly sinking suspicion you might be beginning your story too late, consider the following signs. If even one of them resonates, chances are good your story will benefit from a little more space in its opening chapters.

1. You Were Determined to Begin In Medias Res

This is the most common reason for authors’ beginning their stories too late. “You must begin in medias res” (or “in the middle of things”) is common advice. Or how about: “Begin your story as late as possible to get readers right into the action.” Or, “cut the throat clearing.” Or simply, “cut your first chapter altogether.”

Although none of this is inherently bad advice, it can lead authors to the misconception that they’re supposed to chop out the majority of their story’s important set-up. The result is a story that feels about the same as when you start watching a TV show in the second season: somethin’s missing.

2. Your Characters Hit the Ground Running and Never Look Back

The result of extreme and injudicious in medias res is that the characters are in action from page one without a pause to explain themselves, their motives, their backstory, their relationships, or even their reasons for engaging with the antagonistic force.

Too often in today’s MTV-influenced entertainment world, the emphasis on fast pacing and “action” leads authors to believe readers will be bored by all that background/set-up stuff. If we don’t give readers car chases, shoot-’em-ups, steamy romance, and smart-talking heroes on every single page every single paragraph, then surely they’ll glaze out and return to watching HISHE on YouTube.

While it’s definitely true you need to craft a gripping opening that relentlessly grabs readers’ attention, the ironic part is that without the necessary setup in the beginning your book, readers are even more likely to grow bored and give up. All this background/setup/subtext stuff is what provides the foundation for character building—which is what creates fascinating characters readers can identify with—which is what keeps them from ignoring all those attention-sucking notifications popping up on their phones.

3. Your Characters Never Really Experience a “Normal World”

Authors sometimes get fidgety about the idea of introducing a “Normal World” in their story’s opening. Normal is so . . . boring, right?

The first thing to understand about the Normal World is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be “normal” in the same sense as our own world. Normal doesn’t mean “mundane” or “everyday.” It’s only normal in contrast to the “adventure world” the character will be entering in the Second Act after engaging with the main conflict.

The Normal World is meant to provide contrast with all the interesting scrapes and stakes in remaining 3/4ths of the story. Without this contrast, the adventure world will fail to seem quite so adventurous.

But isn’t the Normal World still a poor way to hook readers? Not at all. Done skillfully, the portentous sense of irony within the Normal World—as it sets up the changes to come—is an incredibly effective way to hook readers’ curiosity and pull them deeper into the character’s plight.

4. Your Characters Feel Undeveloped

When you skip out on the Normal World, you also skip out on your ability to set up the all-important First Act in your character’s developing arc. You cannot effectively show a character changing unless you first demonstrate the need for change. A well-developed First Act gives you the opportunity to show readers who your character is before he encounters the adventure of the main conflict.

Without this setup, characters will too often start out feeling fully formed, as if readers missed out on the most interesting part of their growth. Even when the characters do demonstrate change, it will feel incomplete and unconvincing because it will be lacking its most fundamental ingredients of contrast.

5. Your Subsequent First Act Turning Points Are Comparatively Weak

When you begin your story at full throttle, how can you possibly hope to raise the ante from there? There’s a reason story theorists talk about “rising action.” Readers expect a story to only get hotter as it goes. If you spend all your big bucks in the beginning and have nothing but change left for the Climax, readers will be disappointed. In fact, the bigger your opening, the higher their expectations for the rest of the book—and the greater their disillusionment if those expectations are met with a fizzle instead of a bang.

One of the easiest ways to know if you’ve given readers too much too soon is to look at the rest of the First Act. You should be seeing a steady rise in tension and action.

The First Act is composed of three important turning points—the Hook in the first chapter, the Inciting Event halfway through at the 12% mark, and the First Plot Point at the juncture between First Act and Second Act at the 25% mark.

Each of these road marks should demonstrate a steady rise in stakes and activity, until the whole thing breaks wide open at the First Plot Point and hurtles the protagonist into the main action of the Second Act.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

If you begin your story too late, you’re probably beginning with an event that would have been more properly placed later in the First Act. As Abby talks about in the question at the beginning of the post, if you begin with your story’s Inciting Event or First Plot Point, you’ll be throwing off your entire structural arc, and you’ll be struggling to compensate the pacing right from go. Not fun for you and not fun for readers.

6. You Run Out of Steam Halfway Through the Story

By the same token, if you begin your story by leaving out the crucial beginning section, you’ll likely find that even if you manage to make it through the First Act, your entire story will begin to fizzle out halfway through. Either your character will find himself in the final confrontation with the antagonist way too soon, or you’ll realize you have to start throwing in unnecessary delaying scene after delaying scene to prevent him from reaching this looming climactic scene.

Beginning your story in the right spot isn’t only about choosing the optimal scene to hook readers. Just as importantly, it’s about choosing the right scene to properly set up the sequence of scenes to follow throughout the entire remainder of the book. Choose wrong in the beginning and it will affect everything you write after that.

2 Ways to Choose the Right Place to Open Your Story

If any of the above signs strike you with a little too much familiarity, it may be time to reevaluate your opening. How can you make sure to choose exactly the right spot to open your story?

There are two primary considerations in choosing the right opening scene.

1. Evaluate Your Story Structure

As you’ve likely gleaned from the above list of problems, the biggest concerns with opening your story in the wrong spot come down to one thing: structure. Fortunately, you can flip that on its head and know that if you get your story structure right, you can be pretty sure you’re opening in the right place.

In particular, you’ll want to examine the structure of your First Act. Look for the biggest pieces first then work your way down.

1. First Plot Point

Where Does It Belong? 25% Mark (Between First and Second Acts)

The is the first capital-B “Big” firework in your story. This is the first doorway of no return, in which your protagonist exits his Normal World and irrevocably enters the main conflict. This is typically a dramatic and memorable scene:

  • The character loses someone he cares about.

Star Wars Homestead Burning

  • The character arrives in a new setting.

  • The character enters a new relationship.

Or any host of other life-changing circumstances. The point is they are life-changing. Indeed, these circumstances are the entire purpose of the story. This is the biggest thing ever to happen in the protagonist’s life up to now. This is why you’re telling this story and not some other moment in her life.

As such, you optimally want the First Plot Point to also be the biggest moment in the story up to this point. If the opening chapter is bigger, you probably began too late and need to back off to provide some context.

2. The Inciting Event

Where Does It Belong? 12% Mark (Halfway Through First Act)

The Inciting Event is the moment when your protagonist experiences his first substantial encounter with the main conflict. This is the Call to Adventure in which he is “summoned” by the the primary adventure, but either personally resists engaging with it or is prevented by some outside circumstance.

  • The character is offered something he wants, but is held back by fears or responsibilities.

  • The character leaves his Normal World unhappily (or at least with others unhappy on his behalf).

  • The character officially meets a person who will change her life.

This is the moment that sets up the big fireworks of the First Plot Point. As such, it’s rarely as big as the First Plot Point, but should also be bigger than what has come before. From this point until the end of the First Act, the intensity, action, and stakes will be steadily rising, leading to that point of no return.

It’s a common misconception that you should begin your story with the Inciting Event. After all, isn’t that the first thing of importance to happen? Isn’t this the first domino in your plot’s row of dominoes? Yes and no. Yes, it’s the first time the character directly engages with the conflict, but it’s rarely the first pertinent event. Stories almost always require a little context in order for the Call to Adventure to make sense. There will usually be a series of 3-6 events laying the groundwork for this moment and those to follow.

3. The Hook

Where Does It Belong? 1% (First Chapter)

The Hook is the very first domino you need in order for the Inciting Event and First Plot Point to make sense. It is an event that is pertinent to the main conflict, but also one that introduces the character in his Normal World, as he is before his life is changed by the main conflict.

This could be:

  • The character unwittingly obtaining an object or information the antagonistic force wants.

  • The character’s world being endangered by the antagonistic force in some comparatively small way for the first time.

  • The character demonstrating something lacking in her life.

Will this be a low-key scene? In comparison to what follows, yes, it often is. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be (and, indeed, must be) a gripping moment in the character’s life all in its own right.

2. Choose a Gripping Hook

And that brings us to the second requirement of a properly placed opening—and also the trickiest. If you can’t open with your First Act’s biggest guns, then how are you supposed to grab readers’ attention right off the bat?

Well, that’s the trick, ain’t it?

It requires creativity, precision, and planning. But what part of good storytelling doesn’t?

The keys to creating a gripping hook are to:

1. Introduce Your Protagonist in a Characteristic Moment

Choose an event that proves to readers why they should be interested in, care about, or relate to this person. Always start with the character in motion, pursuing a goal.

2. Introduce Your Character’s Driving Motivation

And what is driving your character’s opening scene goal? Tie it in with the motive that will fuel him throughout the story. He may not have realized his primary story goal yet, but he will be primed to resonate with that goal on a deeply personal level, thanks to his backstory and driving desires.

3. Introduce the Primary Dilemma of Your Protagonist’s Normal World

Remember that sense of irony I talked about in regard to the protagonist’s Normal World? That irony results from the inner conflict (however subtle) between the character’s Wants and Needs—and the obstacles presented by the Normal World that are currently preventing him from gaining them.

4. Create a Question in Readers’ Minds

You can use that subtle dichotomy—between where the character currently finds himself and where he wants to go and will be going—to create a sense of curiosity in readers. Something is slightly “off” about the character’s world and/or his goal in the opening chapter. This is your Hook. This is how you draw readers in.

The scene might include:

  • A big and important event. For example, Anne Shirley arriving in Avonlea in Anne of Green Gables.

  • A comparatively inconsequential event that serves primarily to present a microcosm of the larger conflict that’s coming. For example, Ender fighting the bullies in Ender’s Game.

Finding the right opening for your story isn’t an exact science, if only because each story’s rhythms and requirements will be slightly different. But as you can see, there are sturdy guidelines you can follow in narrowing your options and determining whether you’ve opened your story too soon, too late, or in just the right place to grab readers and prepare them for the wonderful adventure to follow.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever feared you’re beginning your story too late? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I’m not sure about ‘beginning too late’, but my last (recently published) novel had to have some serious rearranging when my editor pointed out that a crucial female character had mentioned her husbands comments on a record he’d heard on the radio. (It was important to the plot).

    The problem was that (in the story) the record hadn’t been released at the time of his murder… the band that recorded it, who were later to become victims of the same serial killer, hadn’t even been introduced to the reader as they were to be much later victims in the killing spree. None of the earlier readers had noticed the anomaly.

    I had to move the scene where they were first shown, from the middle to the opening of the book, and have references to the ‘new first single’ included. Then I had to drop small scenes and minor references to either the record or the band into the story so the reader was still aware of them.
    All the other victims were simply introduced, set up, and dispatched… then becoming the problem of the investigators.

    In fact, doing this with the rock band made the book a better novel with the parallel thread of the band’s growing success and tour running with the two main threads (of the killer, and the investigators), as the mysterious murderer committed more seemingly unconnected crimes, while police were trying to fathom out motives for the previous ones.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah yes, the problem with creating a realistic plot is that sometimes it’s a real pain. :p Just think how much fun we’d have if we didn’t have to worry about readers’ suspension of disbelief! Although, in all seriousness, as you mention here, the story often ends up all the better for the difficulties.

  2. Tony Findora says:

    This definitely has helped me. I wasn’t really thinking about the beginning and the points of the first act, but after having read this, I’m definitely going to fix that.

    I was setting up the first chapter to be his point of no return when really, I probably should lay down the “normal life” first. This was a great help! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A lot of authors are shy of the Normal World, but, honestly, as a reader, I *love* a well-done Normal World. The set-up period of any good story is always one of my favorites.

      • Tony Findora says:

        Yeah, I guess it wasn’t something I immediately recognized in stories, but I can definitely see now how essential it is. The contrast between “what once was” and “now is”, is pretty important to the story.

        It also helps me throw in details I wasn’t sure I would use from my outline. 😉

  3. Just to be a fly in the ointment, you totally repeat yourself in the space from minute 14 and 30 seconds to minute 15.
    G-d bless you.

  4. Point 1. I am glad you addressed the situation of beginning the story too late (“it can lead authors to the misconception that they’re supposed to chop out the majority of their story’s important set-up). I see articles with the “cut your first three chapters” advice ad nauseam. It’s refreshing to see someone acknowledge that such cutting can go too far, with negative consequences.

    Point 2. Time to reflect and connect the dots is vital for a thoughtful, well-rounded, memorable story. To my pleasant surprise, I’ve heard comments (particularly from viewers of movies) that a story line was non-stop high action, leaving no time to reflect and to see the deeper side of the characters and the situation they’re in. In the end, they were disappointed that the story left them nothing (“Too often in today’s MTV-influenced entertainment world, the emphasis on fast pacing and ‘action’ leads authors to believe readers will be bored by all that background/set-up stuff”).

    Point 3. “Your Characters Never Really Experience a ‘Normal World'”: Another excellent point. Without the contrast of what’s normal for the character and setting, the reader is robbed of experiencing the full impact of changes and events that occur.

    Great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As a fan of (good) action movies, I totally agree with your second point. It’s so disappointing when the entire story is built on the SFX with no character development. So many wasted opportunities! It doesn’t take much, just enough to create subtext.

  5. Great advice on the opening. The only book I haven’t yet finished writing is one where I have the first plot point way too early. I’ve started going back and introducing the first act properly, but it’s so much easier to do it right the first time.

    Your comments also twigged me to another book I’m not happy with and now I know how to fix it.

    Alex

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It *is* easier to get things right the first time (which is why I love outlining), but the good news is you can fix just about anything in the editing phase.

  6. You use Star Wars as an example of when to plave major plot points. Interestingly, we don’t even meet Luke until about 30 minutes into the movie. The movie starts (after the scroll of words) in the middle of a battle. The Stormtroopers are fighting each other. The first characters we meet are the droids. The next is Darth Vader, then Princess Leia (RIP Carrie Fisher). The back story gets filled in later. It obviously worked.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, we meet him at the Inciting Event, a 1/4 of the way in, when Uncle Owen buys the droids. This is *not* a technique I recommend for novels. It works much better in film.

  7. I’ve only done this once -I started the story with a kidnapping, then didn’t know how to escalate, and there was no room to grow the relationships properly. I learned a lot from writing that manuscript, though. I even got a personal rejection which, as far as I’m concerned, makes it my most successful book so far. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Finding the perfect opening scene–one that both hooks readers with action and still provides time for the story to heat up–really is tricky. But so worth the extra effort.

  8. Ms. Albina says:

    I like anne of green gables. One of my characters in my novella is transformed into flowers because she wanted Kai for her self.

    K.M. Do you write in cursive before you type your story?

    I print.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, I do my outlines in cursive. Much faster that way.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Okay, I think it is good to read it because sometimes if the curvise is bad then you can’t read it.

        My novella is not too soon. Sometimes some movies take long from one scene to the next.

        How much details do you put into your story about the description of the scene or when your character speaks?

        Do you use wondered or replied when your characters talk?

        • I’d suggest reading as research. Go to the library or buy some of K.M.’s novels. She read 80 (!!) this past year. Read to see what you enjoy and also to find what doesn’t work. This will answer a lot of these types of questions.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s generally best to avoid “telling” speech tags, such as “wondered.” The character’s wondering should be clear from the context of the dialogue itself.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Joe L-I have her books.

            K.M. Thank you.

            To both I am mildly autistic so I learn slower.

            I am revising Pearls of Avanaria. it did not begin to soon.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            K.M. Are you going to do a character arc workbook? If so I want to do it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, I am! 🙂 Hoping to publish that late this summer or fall.

  9. Thanks for posting this, Katie! It took me a little while to realize, but I had this exact problem with a novel I wrote last year. I basically skipped the entire first act—no wonder the book didn’t feel like it worked once I finished it and tried to edit it. I’m rewriting a lot of it now that I’ve figured what the problem is and it’s going much smoother. I’d always heard the admonition against starting too early, so I think I overcompensated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Unfortunately, that’s the danger of just about any bit of writing advice–it’s way too easy to remove it from the overall balance of the story’s big picture!

  10. After receiving feedback from beta readers, I knew something was wrong with my WIP. In reading your books on story structure and character arcs, I determined that I had the Inciting Event at the beginning of the story. It’s worse than that. I have three viewpoint characters, with a character arc for each, and I had started two of the arcs with Inciting Events.

    I discovered also that I’d written a lot of material that didn’t advance the plot. This became clear when I started matching scenes to the structural elements. I’d committed mistakes exactly like those you describe in this post. Fortunately, I’ve visited your site often enough to know you could help, so I grabbed a couple of your books and started reading. I’m confident that my next round of beta readers will be a happier group. Thank you for helping us writers in our efforts to become authors.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, this is the kind of comment that excites me. You may have identified a lot of problems, but you’ve *identified* them. That’s halfway to fixing them. Kudos to you!

  11. My thought is that this advice (like all other excellent writing advice) needs to be interpreted as general rule of thumb. Would you agree. So that the most important thing to remember is the genre specific conventions and obligatory scenes. For example in a police procedural, it’s pretty well essential that the plot starts with a murder, a big scene in its own right and perhaps in other genre this might be a big turning point at the end if Act 1. So in a police procedural, the 1st TP might be a more significant death to the protagonist or an important clue to the first murder. That’s not to say protagonist character is any less important.

  12. Nana Kwarteng says:

    Lots of TV shows these days suffer from an inability to keep up momentum after wowing viewer expectations with the pilot. Just started watching Tyrant and the pilot episode blew me away; but then the tension and drama goes downhill so fast with preceding episodes that I’m beginning to lose interest. Of course TV is different from novels. They hardly have time to “set up”. However, titillating viewers with a cracking pilot only for the drama and tension to quickly deteriorate is a lesson all writers must heed. I love set up, that’s why I’m particularly biased towards the classics. With their deep characterization you become deeply invested in the lives of the characters and the rest of the journey is far more interesting. Personally, beginning my story in the write place is crucial as without a deep understanding of my MC’s psyche it will be difficult to understand his actions and motivations.

    Great post, K!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      TV faces unique challenges, both because it must create excitement within every episode and, particularly, because it must drag out the story over a very long (often too long) period of time.

  13. I have been struggling with where to begin and wondered whether I was beginning too late or too soon. But I’d come to the conclusion that I really need to know my ending and the theme first. I need to know what’s driving my character and where they will end up before I get that first chapter or two right. I seem to be much farther behind than I’d suspected but I think I’m concentrating on the correct aspects of my story. Yes?
    Then I can come back and work with what you’ve given us here. I’m intrigued by your new book. I also need to know the whole arc before I can show her “normal” world. “Normal” to my character. That helped gr8ly!
    It Happened One Night-the name was eluding me, had to Google- Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. I’ll have to revisit that one. Your film examples always help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about the value of knowing the ending. The beginning and the ending frame the entire story, and therefore must work in concert. It’s possible, of course, to write your way to the ending, then go back and tweak the beginning. But personally I find it much easier and more intuitive to discover the ending before I nail down the opening scenes.

  14. Sara Baptista says:

    This is my # 1 concern, thank you for the post and help!
    We are so immersed in the beginning that we put the conflict in the wrong place. Definitely, my first sign is realizing that the story is too short (6. You Run Out of Steam Halfway Through the Story). In my WIP I started at the Inciting Event (12%) Good lord is not at 25%!

    Keep going ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)ノ

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beginnings are arguably the most complicated part of the story to get right–especially with the pressure of using them to hook agents and readers. But it’s so important not to sacrifice the rest of the story to the first chapter. The first chapter may hook readers, but the last chapter is what sells them on the entire experience (and, hopefully, your next book).

  15. I don’t know. For me, I find in most of my books, I tend to do a big event first, something to hook the readers and then I go backwards and show how I got to that point (with both “normal” and “action” stuff) and then when I hit that point / place again then I move forward kind of “into the future”. Does that make sense? And does that count as too late? I can’t seem to write it the other way. My plots always stall.

  16. Max Woldhek says:

    Hmm. “Looks at first draft of second book.” Yeah, I suspect the main character’s normal world isn’t featured enough here before the plot comes along. In the second draft I think I’ll introduce him during his morning routine on his farm…where he’s very carefully feeding his chickens, a jungle breed even tigers prefer to avoid.
    The setting I’ve dreamed up is packed with animism and genetic engineering, so “normal” is a relative term. 😀

    Ps. Ms. Weiland, when I ordered Creating Characters Arcs on amazon (it arrived today in the mail), I noticed that there were workbook versions of Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, which I somehow missed back when I ordered the originals. What’s different in the workbook versions, and are they still worth ordering if one already owns the original versions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re not alone in struggling with establishing the Normal World. Shortchanging this section of the story is regrettably becoming something of a trend, particularly in Hollywood. I’m just back from Rogue One, which sadly had very little time left for its Normal World after spending its available First Act time on a prologue sequence and then a rapid-fire introduction of the political and antagonistic situation.

      As for a workbook, yes, indeed! My main book project for this year is putting together a workbook for Creating Character Arcs, which I hope to see out in late summer or fall.

      • J.M Barlow says:

        I too felt like Rogue One started incorrectly.

        I also thought that Director Krennic was the wrong antagonist (he was Jyn’s father’s antagonist…

        rapid-fire introduction of locations never returned to later in the movie, as well… and some characters who didn’t affect the plot (gun guy, blind guy… anyone could have filled those roles. and they were gimmicky)

        I don’t want to complain too much. The movie was still great – maybe not the best way of executing the story but there were a lot of very satisfying moments in the movie.

        K2-SO was probably my favorite character. Probably the most fleshed out as well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, I feel exactly like you do: don’t want to complain too much because it was still a fantastically fun ode to the original movies, and there was much I *did* like about it. But it has some significant plot issues. I’ll be posting a Story Structure Database analysis next week.

  17. I reckon it comes with being the first of the year, as Frasier was back to episode #1, Annie Allen blogged about writing the first chapter last, and now Katie discusses just where to start the story.

    After reading this piece I’ve realized that although I think I’ve hit the listed goals fairly well I was mislabeling my Inciting Event.

    After a brief flash-forward prologue, I show the protagonist in his normal life, characterizing him and his parents as they interact, and then in the second scene he meets and falls for the girl. I figured that was the incitement that took him out of his normal world, but it was much earlier than the 1/8th mark of the story. After thinking about it for awhile, it became clearer that even though “she was the one” it was still showing his normal life – that because of his shyness and anxieties it was the same old story of fall for a girl then out of fear worship her from a distance.

    Almost amazingly, it is right about at that 12% point where he has a moment of truth and decides to change his path. He’s not at the “Point of No Return” yet but he’s chosen the road never traveled.

    So meeting her is the hook and for awhile he it’s his same old story, which then is actually continuing to show his normal world.

    I think I got it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesomesauce. Although cute-meets will often happen at the 12% mark in romances, they certainly don’t have to happen that late. Particularly when the initial meeting is incidental (i.e., the love interests have no idea they’re about to *become* interested), you can start setting things up right off the bat.

      • They meet in the second scene, and it’s obvious that he’s very interested, but it takes until the end of the first act to find out for sure if she’s interested. It takes him to around that 12% point to realize his so called normal life might even be dangerous and that he has to change.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          This is a great example of how having the protagonist run into “the pieces necessary to create the conflict” is totally different from actually running into “the conflict” itself.

          • I’m so glad I can continually stumble into the truth.

            I’ve been on this for over two years, but as I look at it now –

            Until the inciting event, he’s approaching the new situation (the hook) in his old, failed way (normal life.)

            At the inciting event he gets a wake up call and tries to refocus and clean himself up (his reaction to the IE might need more work in my writing) The first plot point, at which there is no return (life is changed forever), is when he succeeds at winning her over.

            The second act is then about trying to build a working relationship vs both internal and external obstacles.

            The third is losing her and trying to get her back.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It never ceases to awe me how story structure is hardwired into the human psyche. We get it even before we get it.

  18. J.M Barlow says:

    More outstanding content from Ms. Weiland!

    While everything structure has been covered here, I really like when you pick a specific problem like this one and use the resource you provide to us as a reference as you go into a very down-to-the-bone exposition of the problem at hand. As usual, your examples are not only spot on but a great tool to portray what you are trying to explain. Everybody learns differently, and you do a wonderful job of touching all the bases.

    I had to put my Epic Fantasy Trilogy on hiatus because of it’s scale and because I want to take a step back and come back fresh. I want not only to get a running start by going with a smaller project, but this Trilogy is something I want to apply an extremely honed craft to. Still, every article I read brings thoughts to that trilogy, and I am pleased to see that I was on the right track with it (largely thanks to you already).

    Even as I plan my current project – a graphic novel – I use your story structure, character arc, plot arc… well… all of your tips to make sure that this project reaches its full potential. I’ll gladly say you give me that level of confidence – that I can do it.

    My friend, who is co-working on this project with me (mostly the artwork, some story), came up with the original idea/beginnings of the premise, and had an idea of the beginning of his story. I took that moment in his story and made it the 25% Plot Point, because it was the moment where a character leaves his normal world. Reading this article reminds me of that and reassures me that I made the right choice…

    …here’s the ridiculous part: that level of expansion to the story, plus everything else added-by-necessity as a result, turned this graphic novel into an 8-volume story that is possibly larger than my WIP-on-pause!

    Katie, I think I have a problem. I don’t think it’s a bad problem, per se… my friend is awe-stricken at times by my ability to unfold content from folds that don’t even seem to exist. Stories grow at an alarming rate. The “what-if” engine of mine seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut.

    I digress… you’re a scholar and a saint, KMW. Thanks again for doing what you do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I totally hear you on the “what-iffing” problem. I’m a little alarmed at my own growing propensity toward very long-winded novels. So much good stuff I want to pack in there, and only a limited number of words to do it in. Ah, the problems of a writer. 🙂

      • Jeffrey Barlow says:

        I find that the “if, then” statement in basic programming comes into play. “What if…?” “Well, if… Then…” “And if…….. Then…” And the life of a writer goes on.. 😉

        • I start off knowing what a scene is supposed to accomplish, who’s in it, and the setting. Then I visualize the initial moments. Someone makes a comment. What’s the most logical/likely response? And the response to that? I don’t even really think them through, they just play out in my head as I reserve veto power for those that don’t work.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Anther trick I like to use is trying to avoid statements when brainstorming. E.g., instead of “the princess is stuck in the high tower,” I try to turn it into a question: “Why is the princess in the high tower?” or “How will she get out?”

  19. Great post! I’m not too concerned about my sorry beginning, and in fact this post reassured me that I started in the right spot. It did give me lots to think about for when I get to editing, since I think I need to “shoosh” out some of the events in the First Act to make sure they’re spaced evenly. 🙂

  20. Story*

  21. Great post, thanks! I have a story that begins with a series of bad events happening to the protagonist up until he is offered the chance to exit the Normal world (the inciting event?). It’s fantasy, but the pace is quick, somewhat like North By Northwest. The question is, should I start the story right off with one of the bad events as the hook, or do I give more space for setup, and a new hook? Your article seems to suggest I do the later, but now the challenge is finding a new hook, and it better be good! It will probably improve the story, although I don’t want to slow things down too much. I like the better contrast this way. In my story, I also draw a sharp contrast between the abyss of the third plot point and the overconfidence and euphoria preceding it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Usually the physical departure from the Normal World is going to take place at the First Plot Point (25%), but sometimes we’ll see the departure at the Inciting Event, while the Key Event (the entrance into the adventure world) at the First Plot Point.

      • Well, the invitation to leave is what I’m suggesting is the inciting event in my story. The first of a series of bad events will occur way before 12%, so I wouldn’t call any of them the inciting event. After the invitation, more bad events occur and the protagonist mulls it over and actually leaves at the FPP. For the protagonist to just leave the Normal world without warning would be too abrupt. Hope that’s ok, or maybe I’ll have to revise my structure. I’m confused about what difference is between the Key Event and FPP.

    • Jeffrey Barlow says:

      If the normal world -is- constant bad events, then I feel like that’s what your character may want to change, and may work fine as a hook. If the normal world is relatively good and these events start to shake things up, then it may make more sense to start off showing what your character stands to lose.

      The former may suggest that your character has nothing to lose, but may not be open or ready to begin to change it – perhaps needs a Mentor to show him the way to an extent.

      The latter would require an established normal world that gets threatened or shaken by an inviting event, and an event at the Key Event forces the character’s hand to do something about it.. 25% being the first feet out the door thereafter.

      But as they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

      • I think it’s the former of your options. I didn’t explain it well enough. The protagonist’s young sister is undergoing these strange attacks, and the protagonist just wants to get her away. I begin the story where she’s already had a few of these strange attacks, just after they’ve relocated. Unfortunately that’s not enough and the attacks continue. A stranger who knows about their situation invites them to leave their Normal World (another universe, actually). This is what I’m calling the inciting event. He’s ready to change, but he has to think about leaving earth. I’m wondering if, in between these attacks, I should take more time for development and setup.

        • J.M Barlow says:

          I figured that’s what you were getting at. I guess it depends on what aspects need to be set-up early on, but as Katie is teaching us, that’s 12% for the story between the Hook (perhaps an attack) and the Inciting Event (possibly another). 12% is 12%, so scale it to other sections of your story (word count wise. number of scenes may vary.)

          It sounds to me like you want to Hook with one of these attacks – nothing wrong with that if that’s the normal world; if that’s kind of been a thing. Saying – during your 12% Set-Up Phase – that this started happening -since/when [blank]-, then what you are setting up is perhaps Backstory, and perhaps something your character(s) wants to go back to. (And maybe the Need is different than that?). Thus, you would be setting up your character motivation(s). Splash in some scene hooks at the end of each scene, that move the plot forwards rather than backwards, is the fun part!

          I hope that helps. Note that I am blatantly regurgitating things taught to me by Ms Weiland here. It just looks different after I’ve chewed on it a little but it’s all the same stuff – possibly plus extra.

          • Yeah, I was planning on hooking with an attack in the middle of the attack sequence, after they relocated. BTW, these are weird physical attacks against the protagonists sister, not psychotic attacks or something like that. Obviously they make sense in a larger context. At 12%, a stranger greets them and seems to know all about it, inviting them off world. They take a peak and come back. It doesn’t seem realistic to jump at that offer without thinking it over. So more attacks, more buildup, loose ends are tied up, etc., until the FPP when they actually leave. Could that be anticlimactic? Possibly. Maybe I need to rethink it.

            I’m not sure any agent or editor wants to read backstory where a hook should be. I’m going to have to weave in carefully blended characterization and backstory anyway. I just need to think of something besides an attack for a hook. Probably slower paced. Ms Weiland has given us some excellent ideas.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Sounds like your timing is spot on to me.

          • J.M Barlow says:

            I wouldn’t say shoving off to a whole new world is anti-climactic. Actually it’s a pretty clear-cut example for what the first plot point is.

  22. Fully agreed with this post. In my younger writing years I made this mistake all the time, and it’s kind of painful to look at my older work.

    What are your thoughts on a story that starts in the final build-up to the action (in a bit of a revenge plot), and then the book flashes back and forth between the action half of the plot, and the tragic love story that proceeded it? I’m asking because that’s how one of my works in progress is right now and while I like it, I’m still trying to figure out how to balance it right to make it as good as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Personally, I love alternating timelines. They can be as tricky as all get out to pull of seamlessly, but there’s no reason you *can’t* make them work.

  23. Isn’t this exactly why good writing (make that stunning), is an art that we work on and keep improving our entire lives.
    The pitfalls with starting late in the story, as you laid it out, is what I experience and have to keep in mind with my present WIP.
    It starts with a bang, “late” in the story, and then jumps back in time to when much of the story takes place—this remains a challenge!
    Not losing the reader, with too much or too little…
    It’s good to read that setting characters in a “normal” world is okay—actually recommended.
    Thanks for yet another excellent and helpful post, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed! Stories are a tremendously complex and complicated art form. Every time we think we’ve got the challenges licked, a new one arises. But that’s half the fun!

  24. Thanks for talking about this. It’s something I’ve had trouble with for a while. All things considered, I’m still happy with where my present book begins. It is a hook and introduces the character and setting while not being overly dramatic or skipping important parts of the story: the lights from the last neighboring space station have gone out. The protag is shaken by this and considers what it means for his future, but before he can sit and moan about it for pages on end (cough, previous drafts, cough), there’s yet another issue with the central reactor he has to address, and fast.

    In other starting-off-the-year news, I just launched a website about creativity. I hope you’ll check it out sometime. You’ve been a big motivator and influence to me as far as taking steps toward my own writing career, so a huge thanks for that! 🙂
    https://creativeandbeyond.com/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Congrats on the site, A.P.! It looks great. Love the graphic and especially the tagline. I wish you all the best with it!

  25. Now I’m afraid my book starts too late. My novel starts around the inciting event: character “Y” has just found her brother murdered, and escapes from being murdered herself. The 1st Plot Point (she chooses a life of exile) only happens 15% in.

    I withhold information from the readers—they don’t find out until the midpoint that Y was [someone super important] before she ran away.

    I tried to start a little earlier, but now I feel more like I’m lying to the reader’s face, following Y around her home, without telling the reader who she really is. And it only pushed the 1st Plot Point back to 16%. I can’t really extend Act 1 much longer.

    Am I doomed?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My first question would be, “What does happen at the 25% mark?” If nothing of significance, then, yes, you’ve probably begun too early. But if you’ve got a major turning point roundabout there, then a few tweaks will probably fix the pacing.

      • Sounds like I’m doomed then. 🙁 I know I need to shorten the middle (just the first half of the middle), which would help the pacing some, but then my midpoint won’t be the midpoint anymore, so I’ll have to come up with some way to adjust that too.

  26. Christy Moceri says:

    This is a tough one for me. I’m revising my first novel and it doesn’t *feel* structurally off, but my heroine begins her journey lost in the woods after fleeing her home country and is promptly kidnapped by the hero. I’m not sure what her Normal World would be in this case, and I can’t start the novel any earlier because the mystery of everything that came before is part of what drives the narrative.

    The plot seems to progress as follows.

    1. Elen is kidnapped in the woods (characteristic moment/hook appears here)

    2. Even though Fel has just kidnapped the Prime Minister’s daughter, we do get a sense of his normal world, which is one in which he is motivated primarily by guilt over a fallout with his brother and a self-centered drive to get him out of prison at any cost.

    2. Conflict between Elen and Fel violently escalates until he reaches his personal moral event horizon. Horrified, he lets her go. (This *might* qualify as Inciting Event, because Fel is confronted with the consequences of his own selfishness. It’s no longer something he can ignore.)

    3. Elen runs off to a temporary safe place and hunkers down until Fel appears again, warning her that her government is sweeping the city for her. He offers to help her get safely out.

    4. They make a daring escape.

    5. Elen makes the dramatic revelation that she knows where Fel’s brother is and has a plan to get him out of prison. She combines lies and truth to persuade Fel to take her to his home country so that she can collaborate with the revolutionaries to rescue him. It is by this point that we realize both characters have the same goal, though their motivations may be very different.

    In my mind, the First Plot Point is Step 5, because the arrangement can no longer be temporary. The shape of things — that this is about a dangerous journey they are stuck facing together — has been solidified. The “Normal World” in the loosest sense of the term is one in which the two of them have any hope of washing their hands of each other.

    That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Because I honestly don’t see how I could structure things any differently. This was a total pantsing project that has resulted in countless revisions, but after reading Outlining Your Novel I’m trying to pay careful attention to the structure of my next book.

    • How about changing the POV to Fel?

      He’s doing his thing out in the woods, living his life, pursuing his own goals and agenda. Then Elen and her problems intrudes on all that.

      Fel has to juggle his world with the arrival of Elen until eventually he has to make a decision

  27. Most of my problems have stemmed from starting too early.

    Have you read “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” by Jack Campbell?

    That book has the best example of starting “in media res” that I have ever seen. Looking at it from the perspective of this article, there are a couple things that could have been tweaked to enhance it, but so much of the first chapter is done so well that it creates a very powerful beginning. I mention this because it’s critical to see it done right.

    Thanks for another great post.

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