Which comes first?

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m feeling grateful to all of you who follow the blog and particularly to you who chime in with questions and help for fellow writers!

And I’m aware that some of you are in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. I’m sending good wishes your way. By the time I post this you’ll be done and, I imagine, fast asleep. When you wake up, please let us know how it went and what you accomplished. Congratulations!

On November 19, 2020, Beth Schmelzer wrote, I just heard from publisher and editor Kiri, at MG Chicken Scratch Books, that you shouldn’t start with an inciting incident in the first scene or chapter, but you should ground the reader in the MC’s “normal.” What do you all think? She analyzed Dan Gemeinhart’s SCAR ISLAND with the 3 Turning Points on a webinar with the SCBWI Montana chapter last weekend.

Two of you responded:

Melissa Mead: I think you should do whatever works for that story. There’s no one right way to write.

Christie V Powell: The first scene doesn’t have to be the inciting incident (II), but it still should be an interesting hook, something crafted perfectly to show the character’s character. KM Weiland calls it a “characterizing moment”: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multi-faceted-characteristic-moment/

In my Mira’s Griffin, I opened with the main character climbing a cliff, being startled and falling off, and being rescued by a strange creature which turns out to be a griffin. Then she goes back to her normal world for a chapter and a half. The inciting incident is when she is captured by griffins. So the opening is still exciting and hints at the conflict to come, but the II isn’t until chapter 3.

I pulled another book off my shelf. High Sierra by Adrienne Quintana. The opening is when the main character arrives at a cabin and realizes her mother sent her to a “wilderness therapy” program. She’s judgmental of the “problem kids” and of her surroundings, but she’s relatable because of the conflict with her mother. The inciting incident is when their van sets out to drop off their group in the wilderness, and she meets their attractive wilderness guide.

My kids were just watching the movie Newsies in the car. It opens with setting up the setting, and introduces the main character “Jack” as someone who’s tough, respected by the other boys, and stands up for others. He speaks out against a bully, starts a fight, and manages to get away without punishment. The II comes a bit later, when the newspaper owner increases the prices the boys have to pay for newspapers.

I’m with both of you. There are no absolutes, or the only absolute is that whatever works is what we should do. The II doesn’t have to come in the first chapter, but it certainly can.

First off, the II is the event that charges up our plot, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in every book of mine or anyone else’s. The II can be something that happens to our MC (and possibly other characters too) or something our MC does. Confession: I never think about IIs when I write a story, although I think my books have them. Do you think about them? Are you a pantser or an outliner? I have to work backwards to talk about the II, to locate mine from a finished story.

We’re really talking about beginnings when we talk about the II anyway, and, for kids’ books certainly, the beginning has two parts: an II, to be sure, whenever it comes; and something that makes readers care, generally about our MC and sometimes about the MC’s world. In Lord of the Rings, for example, we care about Bilbo and about Middle Earth.

The worst example, in my opinion, of starting out by setting up the world of a story—though many readers love it—appears in the novel Hawaii by James Michener (high school and up). I don’t know how the book, which was published in 1959, would stand up to modern sensibilities or even to my current sensitivities, but I loved everything except the beginning when I was a teenager. The novel is about Hawaii and is told in several time periods, the first being the geologic formation of the island. Yawn. I never managed to read more than a page or two.

The II happens in my Ella Enchanted in the first paragraph, when Ella is cursed with obedience. Ella has no normal because she’s a newborn. I think the reader starts to care about her on the next page when she’s commanded (unintentionally) to eat her birthday cake, and she can’t stop.

In my The Wish, the II occurs in the prologue, which is a problem because many kids skip prologues. MC Wilma’s normal is set up in the first chapter, and the reader comes to care about her when her teacher reads out loud to her class a super embarrassing essay she’s written about how much her dog loves her.

But in my Fairest, the II happens on page 93. At least, that’s when I think it does. Before then, Aza hates being unattractive, but the consequences of everything are set in motion by something the queen does.

In Pride and Prejudice, I’m pretty sure we start to care about Elizabeth when Darcy refuses to dance with her and calls her looks “tolerable.” This may do double duty because it may also be the II. Or the II may come earlier when Mrs. Bennet says how much she wants her daughters to be married well. Even though Austen makes fun of her, the reader realizes how essential matrimony is for a woman who isn’t wealthy in her own right.

I’m not sure what the II is in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells. Trouble gathers slowly. Loma, my MC, is like the fabled frog in the slowly heated water. She and the reader don’t know what’s coming until it’s upon them. Or, the II may come when her grandfather becomes very attached to her and starts taking her with him when he travels—but at first that seems like a lucky break for her.

(About that frog, you probably know that frogs really can’t be lulled into allowing themselves to be boiled to death, but—argh!—according to Wikipedia, a lot of frogs suffered to prove that false.)

The normal establishes what’s at stake when matters start going south. That’s the worldbuilding that comes with every story we write. Sometimes the II doesn’t change the world, doesn’t change much at all. The normal in P&P stays the same after Darcy makes his disparaging remark. Please argue with me if you disagree.

One reason to establish normal first, though, is so that readers feel on solid ground and not flailing in deep water. Along those lines, my editor asked me not to introduce so many characters in the first chapter of Ceiling. In that case, I needed to set up normal more gradually.

On the other hand, unless my memory is wrong, here’s a story that has no normal: Alice in Wonderland. The reader never finds out what Alice’s life is like when she isn’t diving down rabbit holes.

The beginning is probably the part I revise the most because I write it when I’m least certain about how my story will unfold. This may not be true of people who outline extensively, or you may revise your outline’s beginning more than once.

It may be a tad strong for me to say that I hate when people say there’s just one way to do something in writing.  I guess I dislike it—a lot! Such advice is often constricting and can make us be hard on ourselves, especially at the beginning of a story when we’re particularly tender. I’ve talked about a few different approaches to the II, and you may, by experimentation or sheer brilliance, happen upon one that’s new to the rest of us. Don’t be afraid of it!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a new first chapter for Alice in Wonderland that sets up her normal before her descent below ground. Another confession: I’m not fond of Alice, which seems to lack causality and be little more than a string of oddities. If you feel as I do, give her a reason for following that rabbit. Make something be at stake. If you need more than a chapter, go for it.
  • Write a prologue to the fairy tale “Rapunzel” that shows the normal for the witch and reveals why she wants a baby. This can be from the witch’s POV or not.
  • In the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” not the play or the movie, the Beast comes to life only in the presence of Beauty or her father. Write a scene showing what he’s like when he’s alone—his normal.

Have fun, and save what you write!