You sit down at your computer, coffee on your left, piles of research on your right. It's time to write that book. The idea that's been brimming in your brain for months, maybe even years.
And that blank page looks so empty. The cursor stares at you, daring you to create.
Your mind freezes. Not a single thought, not a single idea.
The first chapter of a book can be the most difficult to write. For Remember the Lilies, I had four or five different beginnings before I got to one that I liked (and even then, the editor had me put in a prologue). For my WIP, I'm on the third different beginning.
Sometimes, finding the right starting point is a matter of trial and error. But how can you save yourself time and headaches and decide on the best place to begin?
1. Discover the inciting incident. This is the point at which the character's life is about to change. In the movie The Sound of Music, Maria is late for prayers yet again. The nuns decide they have to do something about the problem of Maria. Her life is about to change forever. What is it that creates the problem, that makes the character have to face the conflict they encounter at the inciting incident? In Snow on the Tulips, that place for Cornelia was when her brother brought the injured resistance worker to her house. She had created this safe little world for herself, away from the watchful eyes of the Nazis. When Gerrit arrives, her cocoon crumbles. Life will never be the same again for her. I had my inciting incident.
2. Place your characters in the middle of the action. Start where the action begins. The character's normal world is disrupted. Here's a point where I disagree with James Scott Bell a bit. At a conference, I took a class from him on plotting. He said to show the normal world first, then the inciting incident. So, you have children at the kitchen table, eating their breakfast, their mother urging them to hurry so they won't miss the bus. She turns and looks out of the window to see two men dressed in military clothing walking up to her door. Her husband is deployed in Afghanistan. What news are they bringing her? Great beginning, but the first couple of paragraphs might not capture the reader they way they should. How about starting with her looking out of the window, seeing the two uniformed men coming up her walk? Then she can turn and tell her children to hurry up and get ready for school, even as her heart is beating out of her chest, thinking the worst about her husband. That's dropping your characters in the midst of the action and hooking them immediately, but still showing the normal world, the one that's about to evaporate. Boom, in the first paragraph, you have your readers hooked, wondering what news the officers are bringing.
3. Give your readers a clue about the conflict. Stories turn on conflict. Conflict is the gas that powers the book to move forward. Without it, your book will stall. I have editing clients that spend a great deal of time setting the scene in the first chapter. Wonderful writing, but not good enough to hook the readers. They need to know in the first couple of paragraphs what the conflict will be in this book. I struggled with the beginning of my WIP, because I didn't have the conflict defined. I went back to what my heroine is going to be dealing with - a coworker who has it out for her. Ah, then I knew that I had to start with a scene showing the heroine and her coworker having a disagreement. It's a romance, so I also had to find a way to work in the hero. Viola, first chapter problem solved. If your first chapter feels flat and isn't lively, go back to your GMC (goals, motivations, and conflicts) chart. Pick one of the goals, look at the conflict surrounding that goal, and write a scene that shows the reader that. (If you'd like more information on GMC charts, please contact me.)
Whether you're struggling with where to start or if you have your first chapter written, look at these three areas. When you have the inciting incident, the action, and the conflict ironed out, you'll know just where to begin writing your book.
What has helped you in deciding where to start your story? Have you ever had to write your first chapter multiple times to get it right?
Where Do I Start?
Liz Tolsma is the author of several WWII novels and prairie romance novellas. She is a popular speaker and an editor and resides next to a Wisconsin farm field with her husband and their two daughters. Her son is a U.S. Marine. She enjoys reading, walking, working in her large perennial garden, kayaking, and camping. Please visit her blog, The Story behind the Story, at www.liztolsma.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@LizTolsma), and LinkedIn. She is also a regular contributor to the Pencildancer blog and the Midwest Almanac blog.