A Winning Beginning

I was going to make New Year’s resolutions, but I forgot.

I had a few of them, actually; I should have written them down because I don’t remember what they were. Diet? No… Be more organized? Maybe…

Oh! One was to be less forgetful. Oops.

I’ve never been a big New Year’s resolution kinda gal. I mean, I’ve tried them in the past, like one year, I decided to be less pessimistic. But then I immediately thought that was dumb. So it was like I lost by default.

It’s that same pessimism that says, “Why wait until the beginning of the year to change something? Just do it, if you want to do it as un-dramatically as possible, and keep it to yourself. What are you, an optimist?” And that’s generally how my life goes.

New beginnings. That’s the selling point of New Year’s. Starting fresh, starting over, because beginnings are supposed to be fun, and exciting, and they should draw you in.

See what I did there?

I totally capitalized on 2018 to blog about writing your chapter ones! Maybe capitalizing on stuff should be my resolution for this year … something to think about. Quietly, and to myself.

Anyway, there’s this fantastic book I read many years ago called Hooked by Les Edgerton, and I’ll wait while you click on the link to purchase it…

This book will change your life, and probably your manuscript, as well. I’m obviously not going to reproduce the entire book in this post, but I will put my own little twist on it, the first going back to—you guessed it—the plot clock.

We know by now that the first point on the plot clock is the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is the introduction to the story-worthy problem. This, ladies and gentlemen more ladies, is where your story begins.

In a romance, when boy meets girl. In a thriller, when the protagonist finds the dead body. It’s the point that plucks your MC from her ordinary world and drops her in this special world that navigates your entire story.

This is a direct quote from the book (page nine, chapter one, second paragraph): We don’t fill readers in on the protagonist’s life for the past ten years leading up to the story’s actual beginning.

With that said, if your book starts with backstory, prologue, or flashback, you’re doing it wrong. If your MC is in her thirties throughout your story, but she’s ten in chapter one, you’re doing it wrong. If at any point in your first few pages you start a sentence with, “It all began when…” you’re doing it wrong. None of these are your Inciting Incident. And if you don’t know your Inciting Incident, you’re eighty shades of wrong.

I’d say seventy-five percent of my clients send me manuscripts that start in the wrong spot. I’m a good forty pages in before I’m getting to the heart of the story. And when I share my concerns, authors always say the same thing: “But readers really need to understand why she is the way she is toward men. They need to understand her so they can empathize with her bad decisions.”

And I get it. I do. But that doesn’t belong in chapter one. Think of it this way: your chapter one is a prototype of your entire book. It should give readers a small taste of the whole package, not just flowery, glittery words trying and hook them with how good of a writer you are.

By leaving out the inciting incident of your first chapter, you’re robbing the reader of the true feel of the book. Is your entire story internals and backstory? Absolutely not, so don’t try to hook your reader with that. There is a time and place for internals and backstory, but not in chapter one. Chapter one should not only reflect your best writing, but should also be full of action, grabbing your readers’ hands and pulling them into the journey. Not forcing them to sit through an orientation before allowing them to go on the journey.

I’m hungry, so let’s use snacks. If you were standing in Sam’s Club/Costco/BJ’s and handing out samples of your book for shoppers to taste, you’d be setting out little paper cups full of your chapter one.

Let’s take this a step further. If your book were a baked good (cupcakes!), you know that you need a variety of ingredients to concoct the finished product. But instead of flour, eggs, oil, etc. you use things like voice, backstory, internals, plot, character, setting, and everything else.

So there you are, handing out samples at Sam’s Club. Would you set out little cups of flour and oil and eggs and tell everyone to come sample your amazing cupcakes?

Why not? Those little details are the origins of your cupcake, they tell us how the cupcake came to be. Don’t you think the shoppers need to know how the cupcake became the cupcake? Don’t you think you’ll hook them by showing them how organic your flour is, or how yellow the egg yolk is, or how pure your oil is?

Of course not. People want to sample the entire cupcake, taste how delicious it is, then you can explain to them the backstory as to how the cupcake became the cupcake. They’ll listen, then.

Plot—it’s a MAIN INGREDIENT in your book. Don’t leave it out in the first chapter by trying to hook your reader with too much telling.

One of the things the majority of these clients are doing right is that they are using the catchy nouns and verbs in chapter one. Yes, utilize this opportunity to show off your mad writing skills! Great vocabulary and witty sentences should go in the beginning—not only to help hook readers, but also because the pace calls for it.

Remember my post on pacing? The main idea is that scenes leading up to a main point on the plot clock are slower paced with longer sentences and more sensory verbiage. And what’s our first main point? The Inciting Incident! So chapter one is going to be slow, giving you the perfect opportunity to give us your best, sharpest writing. So if plot is the cake part of your cupcake, then voice and pacing are the frosting and sprinkles.

Gah. Cupcakes.

You’ll not find this cupcake bull in the book at all. The book is so much better. It’s just that I’m trying to write this blogpost, and I’m currently sitting at a picnic table with a field of horses to my right and a basketball court of teenage boys to my left, and I’m not sure which smells worse. And all I can think about is how cupcakes would be so lit right now.

The last thing before I go to get a cupcake is prologues. Most people will say that prologues are a lazy way to slip in backstory, and they’re right. If you have a prologue in your book, and it’s a summarized life story of your MC, or a flashback of a tragic event or something, nix it. It’s true that some authors have gotten away with prologues for various reasons in the past, but prologues are getting a bad rap these days. They are so 1999.

Thank God I forgot to make New Year’s resolutions, because one would probably be to lose weight. And if I were trying to lose weight, I wouldn’t be able to eat a cupcake.

So what kind of cupcake should I get?

7 thoughts on “A Winning Beginning”

  1. Traci, I needed this sincerely. Well not the talk of cupcakes because I’m reading this in bed and it’s late here, but now I’m hungry for said cupcakes and I’m waffling.
    I just ordered Hooked on Amazon, one click is the devil.

    But as I was trying to say, thank you, I’m the 90’s prologue cliche but I’m wiping it completely now, you’ve given me so much food for thought. See, you would have totally thrown my MS at my head.

    Oh and if I could have a cupcake right now it would be red velvet, I want a Lola’s cupcake so bad now. I’ll sneak there Monday lunchtime!

    1. One click IS the devil–that’s how I ended up with cupcakes. Thank you, Uber Eats! LOL Anyway, I’m so glad this has helped! And for the record, I TOTALLY had a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting. Oh, yes…

  2. Thank you so so much for this! Just dumped the prologue, that consisted of a flashback to the protagonist aged 10!
    You saved this manuscript, and it makes so much sense to start with the main incident. I’ve read hundreds of thrillers, and the best ones always throw me right onto the thick of the action. Which would beg the question how in God’s name didn’t I join the dots?
    Anyway,much appreciated, and a writing lesson learned and understood. All on a random Friday too! Thank you sincerely.

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