The answer? Begin in the protagonist’s ordinary world, that is, in the world of his or her normal circumstances. How do we do that? Read on.
This ordinary-world beginning works well in many types of story structures, but it is especially effective in what is often called “The Hero’s Journey,” which is the story path that I have often followed.
This is step #1 in the journey – the hero’s (protagonist’s) ordinary world.
Elements of the ordinary-world opening:
- Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
- Raise questions that the reader wants answered
- Provide a goal for the protagonist
- Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
- Set the physical scene with only essential details
- Begin building a bridge to the back story
- Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
- Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure
As a way to explain each of these elements, I am including the beginning of my book Reapers:
The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.
I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside. The internal alarm grew stronger. Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. Time was growing short—probably less than an hour left.
I shoved open the window sash and leaned into the darkness of the urban alley. With electricity cut-off hour long past for residents, only streetlamps glowed from a neighborhood road to the left. A tall woman in a black trench coat stood at the corner holding an umbrella over her head and a suitcase at her side, as if she were waiting for a ride, maybe a taxi.
I leaned farther out to get a better look. It hadn’t rained in three days, and the skies were clear—a dry night in Chicago and too warm for a trench coat. No cabbie would pick up this woman even if he could see her.
A slight glow around her eyes confirmed her status. She was a ghost, probably level two, far too opaque to be newly dead and glowing too much to have wandered for more than a couple of weeks. If not for the death alarm, I could take the time to collect her. For now she would have to keep wandering. I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.
Note how the first sentence indicates that this is the protagonist’s ordinary world. The words “that” and “always” show that this alarm was a frequent occurrence. The protagonist is accustomed to this alarm, though it is unpleasant. After that beginning, the opening paints a picture of the world using methods that I will explain in future posts.
For now, let’s see how this opening fulfills some of the above elements.
1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning: “The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded.” The concept of a death alarm grabs attention by raising an element of mystery and prompting the reader’s first questions. “What is a death alarm, and why does this character get them?”
And that leads us to the second element.
2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered: Here are more potential questions that this beginning raises. “Why does the protagonist have a valve embedded in his chest? Who is going to die? What is a Reaper? Why is he wearing a cloak? Why is there an electricity cut-off hour? Why is the ghost at the street? What is a level-two ghost? Are there other levels?” And I’m sure you can come up with other questions.
These questions add to the mystery of the opening scene, which is an ideal way to hold the reader’s attention. As long as we feed the reader answers to some questions while keeping some unanswered, the reader will continue turning the pages to satisfy the thirst for more.
Many writers are tempted to begin with intense action, such as a physical battle, a car chase, or a natural disaster. Although this method can be viable, readers might feel lost and disconnected because they don’t yet know anything about the characters or what is at stake. There is no emotional attachment that allows the reader to feel the danger and sympathize with potential losses. Such an attachment is the crucial bond between the reader and the story.
I believe in delaying intense action for at least a few paragraphs or pages until the reader has a chance to connect. First show some of the protagonist’s character qualities. Allow the reader to understand what is at stake so that any intense action has purpose and a potential sense of loss if the character suffers a defeat.
And that leads us to element #3, which I will cover in next Monday’s post.
Please comment with any questions or suggestions.
This is #1 in a series of posts about the protagonist’s ordinary world. Here are all of the posts in the series:
Categories: Writing Tips