A well known literary agent, Dongwon Song, posted recently about the right way to begin a story. He was riffing off the advice that authors often get, which is to start your story with something fast or exciting. Many budding authors take this to mean that they should start with action, but Dongwon went on to explain how it isn’t action that’s needed early on, but its opposite, tension. Tension, he argued, is what leads to action. Tension builds and makes us care about the characters. Action is the release of that tension.
It’s good advice, and got me to thinking about a subject I often touch on while teaching young writers. Creating a compelling opening is one of the most difficult problems an author faces, but it’s a task made vastly simpler if we know who the characters are and what their world is like before we begin writing.
Years ago, I was a software engineer at a nuclear power plant in Illinois. I was part of a team that maintained the programming for the simulator, which by US law all nuclear plants must have. Switch for switch, readout for readout, the simulator was a mock-up of the control room in the power plant itself. The software component (which is what I worked on) modeled how the real plant worked. Taking input from the physical hardware – buttons, switches, dials, and levers manipulated by the trainees – it determined what would happen by modeling how the nuclear power plant produced energy, steam, and, eventually, electricity. If the trainees pushed the control rods in, the amount of energy created by the core would be reduced, which in turn would create less steam and electricity. If a cooling pump’s speed was increased, the amount of water running through the pipes would increase as well, which would cause the core’s temperature to lower. And so on and so on.
The simulator was used to train operators on various procedures like core startup, shutdown, and standard daily operation. It was also used to train them how to handle emergency situations – Three Mile Island- or Chernobyl-type events. Various incidents could be introduced into a training scenario. If a pipe burst and caused coolant to leak, for example, it would effect the core temperature. If an electrical breaker tripped, it could ripple through the plant’s electrical network. Through a series of carefully designed scenarios, trainees learned how to respond to various emergencies.
In story terms, the incidents sprung on the trainees during a training scenario are analogous to a story’s inciting incident. They are, in effect, major events that set a story in motion. Inciting incidents are important because so much flows from them. Just as important, though, are what I’ll refer to as the ‘initial conditions’.
The software in the nuclear simulator had the ability to take snapshots of the plant’s current virtual state. The plant might be shut down, disconnected from the greater utility’s grid. It might be ramping up toward full production. It might be at power but preparing to shut down so that some of the spent fuel rods can be replaced. The software could capture any of those states via snapshots. (If it couldn’t, it would take hours or even days to get the simulated conditions just right!)
These snapshots became the initial conditions for the various scenarios designed by the trainers. In other words, they captured the plant in a certain state moments before some unexpected event was going to be introduced. In story terms, it is the state of the world before the inciting incident takes place.
How we determine what the world is like, who the characters are, and what happens to them that throws their life out of whack is a bit of a dark art. Sometimes the world comes first, and the characters are fleshed out later. Sometimes a cool idea for the story’s beginning leads to certain characters becoming necessary. However we muddle through those protean stages, we’ll eventually need to dig deep into what the world is like, where the characters are in their lives, and how things are about to change.
People, societies – indeed, worlds themselves – have certain trajectories over the course of their lifespans. They grow and evolve. They atrophy and die. Things might be calm and placid at certain points. They might be hectic. They might be positively horrific. The point here isn’t to recommend any particular possibility, but rather to urge you to spend time thinking about what the world looks like before the inciting incident occurs.
It is precisely because Bilbo leads such an idyllic life that the long journey to the Lonely Mountain is such a wild adventure. Imagine if Aragorn had undertaken the same journey in Bilbo’s place. The same events might have occurred, but the viewpoint would be through a character infinitely more worldly wise than Bilbo. Aragorn being so much more capable and well travelled, much of the story’s sense of wonder would be lost. This isn’t to say that telling the story from Aragorn’s point of view would have made the story worse, only different, and that it would satisfy a different set of reader expectations.
Seeing Harry Potter as an orphan being raised by the cruel Dursleys makes us sympathise with him. It creates a pent-up desire to see him succeed, a desire that’s only strengthened when Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape also harass Harry. Similarly, Harry’s complete ignorance of the wizarding world creates a significant headwind for him. How would the story have changed if Harry had known about magic his whole life? It wouldn’t change the story entirely, but it would certainly be a different experience for both Harry and us, the readers.
While developing my epic fantasy series, The Song Of The Shattered Sands, several things were in place early on. I had already envisioned Sharakhai as a desert metropolis, a city thriving on the brisk trade brought to it by caravans of sandships. I knew the heroine, Çeda, was orphaned when her mother was hung by the 12 immortal kings who rule the city. I knew the inciting incident was going to reveal why Çeda’s mother was killed by the kings. What I was missing were the initial conditions. They would dictate so much – the history of the kings, the cruelties they committed during their long reign, how ripe things are for change, how difficult Çeda’s life was before we meet her in the book’s opening pages.
I struggled with how to tie the various elements together until I looked more closely at the asirim, the undying creatures who steal into the city one night each month to take tributes, those marked for death by the Reaping King. I didn’t know who the asirim were initially, only that they were bound to obey the kings. It was the answering of that question – why are they bound? – that led to the right initial conditions. Çeda’s mother, it turns out, had a purpose in Sharakhai, and it was related to the asirim and their enslavement. It was very personal, as it turns out, and related to a tribe of people that history forgot.
It was a watershed moment. That it was so personal for her mother made it personal for Çeda, which in turn made it personal for me. With those initial conditions in mind, the arc of the first book, Twelve Kings, and the entire Shattered Sands series became clear.
A word of warning. One shouldn’t consider the initial conditions or the inciting incident as written in stone. Play with them to enhance the story’s emotional impact. Imagine if Katniss Everdeen had been from District One instead of District Twelve. It would make for a very different story, wouldn’t it? Or what if Yoda had once been a master of the dark side of the force, a thing he hid from nearly everyone until Luke came along?
I’ll admit it can feel overwhelming at times. With so many possibilities, which conditions are the right ones to choose? This is where you need to rely on your personal taste as a writer. Let your inner reader guide you. Write the book you’d most like to read. Build your world. Find your characters. Choose the spark that ignites the story.
Just don’t shortchange the state of the world just before the spark strikes. It is, after all, the fuel that feeds the fire.