I've been thinking a lot about beginnings: what makes them work? where are the key turning points? how do they relate to the rest of the story? Earlier this month, I realized that one piece of writing advice that we all hear over and over at every conference, lecture, or blog post about beginnings was getting in the way of my beginnings.
This idea was unlocked by another approach to beginnings and putting the two side by side, I realized there's a magic quarter in my favorite books.
Let's talk about the directive that wasn't working first.
Start with the action.
Raise your hand if you've heard this one. It's not actually bad advice, but I was thinking about it in a way that wasn't productive.
Beginnings are important, they set the stage, they draw us in, they introduce us to the characters we will follow for an entire story. They hint, they tease, they intrigue.
It's good if something happens.
Start with the action means don't lecture me. Don't subject me to endless descriptions of the room the characters are sitting in talking about their past and revealing - for no apparent reason - all their key backstory.
Action is good.
Things are happening.
I can see what my characters are like by the way they behave.
I get a sense of their emotional state through the way they interact with other characters and events.
Action at the beginning of a book sets us up for the magic quarter, but it is not the magic quarter.
If you're a plotting junkie, you may already know where I'm heading: the inciting incident, that sly event that, if you think action=beginning=major plot twist, you'll be missing the joy of the story's beginning.
The inciting incident is where your story begins. It's the action at the start, the dividing line that, if your character were looking back, they'd point to and say "that's when everything changed."
Maybe they didn't know it at the time, but something shifted.
It's not the thing that sets them off on their quest; it's the start of the story.
And for about one quarter of the book, things are happening that build up to the magic quarter, and they are action scenes, movement and exploration, but these things are not the thing that turns your whole book on end.
It boils down to this: the inciting incident is the beginning. The Magic Quarter is when the main character realizes what the beginning is saying: your life will never be the same!
My problem was I was confusing the two, which compressed the beginning and rushed it. You can't start with the major plot point because your readers don't know your characters. They don't care yet.
The first quarter makes us care.
This really isn't a new revelation. It's quite clearly written about in books about writing - Story, Save the Cat, Story Engineering - There's a great post about inciting incident vs. turning points here at NarrativeFirst.
The difference between the beginning and the magic quarter matters. A lot.
I was mulling these ideas over while moving post-it notes around in my plotting notebook, then I decided to stretch my legs and do an experiment.
At the bookstore, I picked up The Giver. Eyeballing 25%, I opened the book. Bam! Jonas gets his assignment and he's confused - why is he being punished? A Wrinkle in Time? There's Mrs. Whatsit in the garden and we're going to time travel? Woah! When You Reach Me? Same thing - 25% and there were are, an unlocked door and first letter appears.
These are the turning points and, like clockwork, they're at that 25% point.
Yes, there are exceptions, and I'm sure someone is plucking a book of a shelf to prove me wrong, but I'm not worried about the exceptions right now, I'm focused on what works almost all of the time because it's satisfying. It's what we expect, it's how we tell stories, and it's downright magical.
Magic quarter in hand, I shuffled a few more post-it notes, and we're off to the races.
Originally published May 3, 2017