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Story Structure – Part 1: Beginnings

Now that I’ve spent several weeks discussing protagonists, heroes, antagonists, and villains, let’s start putting those great characters to use. But first, there’s all that worldbuilding to be done—creatures to describe, magic to define, political structures to develop…And surely, your audience will need to know all of that for context, right?

Yes and no. Yes, your audience will need context. No, don’t do a gigantic infodump at the beginning of your story.

I think the fantasy author’s love for worldbuilding can lead to trouble. Please don’t misunderstand—one of the reasons I adore fantasy is because of the worldbuilding! But some authors spend the first several chapters of a book doing a slow build with a lot of exposition instead of giving us something to latch onto right away—some action, a character, something.

The CSI: Principle: Start With The Body

I love television crime dramas. The good ones can teach writers a lot about good dramatic structure. Shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, or NCIS boil a mystery down into an hour-long plot with easy breaks where we can see the flow of the dramatic structure. Think about it:

First five minutes: We’re presented with the mystery, dead body, or crime.

First segment: Clues are gathered, suspects discussed, theories posited. Ends with a significant break or a new clue.

Second segment: The mystery deepens. Maybe there’s a chase, a dead end, some kind of reversal that shakes the cops up a bit.

Third segment: Things really ramp up to the conclusion—there’s intense debate, a court order, a big breakthrough. There might be a cliffhanger at the end of this segment, or the climax might come here.

Final five minutes: The climax is brought to a close, and the show winds down with a satisfying (happy or not) denouement.

This is a really standard story structure—inciting incident, three plot points, climax, denouement. The reason TV dramas use it is because it’s predictable for the audience—they know what to expect from the structure—but the combinations within it are endless.

The CSI: Principle says you “start with the body.” I like this structure. It hooks the reader right away and gets the action rolling.

Incite the Action

I learned about inciting incidents in my college Shakespeare classes, which is sad because I’m not sure they were ever mentioned in my writing or other literature courses.

The inciting incident of a story is the thing that rocks the protagonist’s world somehow. It’s the moment that sets the story in motion—the thing that triggers everything that comes after, the catalyst or choice or event that sets everything else in motion. It can be the “hook,” but it doesn’t have to be. It can be small or large. It can be an action by the protagonist, the antagonist, or some other force. But without it, the story wouldn’t happen.

In the Furies of Calderon, it’s the moment when Tavi decides to pick flowers for a serving girl instead of tend his sheep. In Macbeth, it’s the moment when Macbeth meets the three hags and hears their prophecy about him. In A Game of Thrones…Well, there are a couple of candidates, and it depends on who you believe is the protagonist. My own opinion is that the hook is the opening scene beyond the Wall, and the inciting incident is when Robert Baratheon asks Ned Stark to be his Hand. But good cases can be made for any number of other events.

Most Readers Aren’t—Squirrel!

Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering, has some great resources about story structure on his website. He suggests that many authors think the inciting incident and the first plot point have to be one and the same. He says that they can be the same, but they don’t have to be. If they are different, he says the inciting incident should come in the first 10-15% of the story.

Brooks knows far more about structure than I do, but I have to respectfully disagree with his assertion that the inciting incident and first plot point can effectively be the same thing. If the first plot point doesn’t come till 20-25% of the way into the story, that’s a lot of information for the reader to go through waiting for both an inciting incident and a plot point. In a doorstopper fantasy novel, that could easily mean 150-200 pages of information before we get to an inciting incident or plot point. That’s a lot to expect. (I agree with pretty much everything else he says about inciting incidents, though.)

I’m not saying it’s not possible. George R. R. Martin writes compelling enough stories that I’d stick with him that long. But I’ve said before that if I’m not hooked by 75-100 pages in, even in a long novel, I give up. And I think most readers aren’t even that generous. In the era of ebooks, remember that many readers will download samples—often the first 10% of the book—to decide whether to purchase the whole thing. I think the inciting incident should be in that 10% to help ensure the reader wants to see what happens next.

The choice that I think has the best chance of hooking readers and keeping them interested is to put the inciting incident very early—definitely within the first 10% or even 5% of the book. Then, drop back and use some other techniques to give exposition and do some worldbuilding.

One other note: When we talk about beginnings, especially in fantasy, the topic of prologues inevitably comes up. I’m not a prologue hater—I think some prologues are done really well. I also think fantasy readers are unique in that they will usually read a prologue, whereas readers of other genres often see “prologue” as code for “this part isn’t important.” But instead of yammering on about prologues here, I’ll just point you to this recent guest post I wrote about them.

So by all means—build your world, set up your political systems, and design your magic. Those are all things that make your story rich, lively, and interesting. But when it comes to telling the story, drop your readers right into it and keep them wanting more.

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12 Comments

  1. Autumn2May says:

    Great article! Can’t wait to see part 2. :)

  2. Another great article Amy. The start has to capture the reader. Once you have them hooked you can introduce the landscape and creatures of the fantasy world. At least that’s what I have found.

    • I agree, Rosalie. And honestly, I don’t give books nearly as much time to hook me as I used to. Maybe it’s age–maybe it’s being a mom. If I’m not compelled to keep going by about three or four chapters in, I give up. Maybe I’m harsh. :P

      Amy

      • Khaldun says:

        I think this is the culture we’re living in. We expect gratification NOW. If we aren’t satisfied or hooked in any meaningful way, we’ll find some other form of entertainment that will do this. I’m as guilty as anyone, so definitely good advice.

        • Khaldun, that’s so true. But even so, the structure is ancient–inciting incidents have always come early in the story. Well, at least in dramatic structure–plays and such. But hey, it works because it’s always worked, I suspect. :)

          Like I said, if the story is compelling and the writing is good, I’ll stick with it. But eventually, if nothing really HAPPENS or if I can’t tell where the story is going, I’ll give up. And then we run into the “mushy middle” syndrome, too, where you’ve been cruising along all hooked into something and then everything….. slows…… down…… I’ve given up on books halfway through, too.

          But as I’ve said before… I don’t read anything like a normal person anymore… :)

  3. Terrell Mims says:

    Great blog. My favorite book on openings is Hooked by Les Edgerton. It covers everything you would need to know on openings.

  4. Bets Davies says:

    As a reader, I’m not actually sure how much the book matters because in order to see if the meat of the book is goo, I generally sit down in the bookstore (I still prefer holding a book to flip through rather than ordering unless I really know the author and know i want or need that book), and read several sections of the middle of the book. If I get caught up in it, I buy it. I usually don’t even read the hook. But I’m weird like that.

    I love your comparisons to CSI etc. In part because I love crime drama so it was fun to see. I usually use the Medieval poetry comparison (look up my blog: http://betsdavies.blogspot.com/2011/06/ahg-i-confess-i-wrote-about-vampires.html), but that may be somewhat esoteric for most people. So it was cool you had another metaphor.

    As a writer, my hook, inciting incident, and first plot point generally happen within the first ten pages. I like to start off with a bang. In my epics, this is somewhat more challenging, but if I go much over ten pages without everything started, I figure I’m giving the reader too much information for them just to figure out whether or not it is intriguing. After those first ten pages or so, the scene ends. Then I slow down and catch the reader up on worlds and character, having already slung shot the plot into action.

    Kudos.

  5. Bets Davies says:

    Oh, and I actually am a prologue hater. I have been known to simply skip them.

  6. [...] 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure Part 3 – In the Beginning… Part 4 [...]

  7. J.R. Hall says:

    To say that beginnings are critical and carry a ton of weight would be – in my opinion – not doing its full justice. What I mean by that is this, the average reader is bombarded with books everywhere they look now. No longer are the days of having to go to the bookstore to find a book. The Internet has brought the bookstore to their homes and with this increased exposure a reader has so many options, but your book needs to stand out. How? The beginning.

    Grip the reader with a nice hook. A hook that makes them ask “What happens next?”, and when they keep turning pages to find out, you’ve got them. The first reader is most likely going to be an editor, so a weak beginning will usually translate to being passed over.

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