Fiction is a form of art, and art is personal, subjective, and filled with exceptions.
However, fiction is also a science, with specific principles and forms that are guided by the psychology of how people read and respond to story. These things can be taught and learned. They can be added to a writer’s skill set and significantly improve both the writing and the story. (Side note: if you’ve been told you’re not a good enough writer, that’s why you should keep going if you want to be one. Like all things, becoming skilled is a process.)
The first chapter of a story, often the first two chapters, can be incredibly difficult to write. It’s often the most rewritten and revised portion of a book, and it’s the place where flaws can mean you lose the attention of an agent, editor, or readers. Readers decide within a few seconds of opening a book whether they’ll keep reading, and it’s up to those first chapters to hook the reader enough that they’ll spend hours following your characters around instead of all the other things they could be doing.
Complex stories in any genre, and especially sci-fi and fantasy, can be particularly difficult when it comes to beginnings. Almost every story needs to open with action, tension, subtext, clearly defined main characters, a compelling connection to those characters, and a central conflict or problem. Fitting all that into the first few pages of a story is hard enough, but it gets exponentially more difficult when the story contains a large cast, several subplots, a huge backstory, and multiple points of view. This is often the case with sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s those genres I see struggling the most with their beginnings. Complex contemporary stories (TV example: PARENTHOOD) can also struggle here quite a bit.
One TV show that does tension, plot, and character well is The Vampire Diaries. (Plus: Damon!) I’m using it as an example of how to open particularly difficult stories because it has an enormous cast, a backstory covering thousands of years, multiple points of view, and several main storylines and subplots.
Note: there are spoilers in this post referring to the first episode, and a few beyond that. If you haven’t seen the first few episodes, I highly recommend watching them now (Netflix has the show) to get the most out of this post and to not spoil the story.
Episode one of season one of The Vampire Diaries has a lot going on. We meet Elena, Jeremy, Jenna, Stefan, Caroline, Bonnie, Matt, Tyler, Vicki, and Damon, as well as a few minor characters. High stakes, including two deaths at the beginning, tragic pasts, supernatural content, and compelling goals for each of the main characters make this a particularly difficult story to begin. It’s a wildly successful show, with viewers coming and staying for the history, romance, tension, character depth, and moments of genuine emotion. So let’s see how the show starts a story that does all that.
Here’s the first few minutes of the show, in case you want to refresh your memory:
Personally, the first few minutes of episode one strike me as weak and scattered. We have Stefan’s voice-over telling us that he’s been hiding for centuries and that he’s a vampire. Then we switch to a car with a man and a woman returning from a concert on a foggy night. They hit someone, both people are bitten and killed by what turns out to be a vampire. This is a prologue, and I don’t think it’s a particularly effective one. When I first saw this episode, I thought the characters would be important ones, and they weren’t; I thought the concert would be important, and it wasn’t; I wondered briefly if it was a flashback, and the man and woman were Elena’s parents, which was confusing. Then we have the show’s title appear, and we cut to Stefan’s point of view, and get more voice-over telling us that his coming home is a major risk, but he has to know “her.”
So basically, we have a prologue from Stefan’s POV split in half by a prologue containing strangers and a mystery killer. The goal of the prologues, most likely, is to give us the tone of the show and let us know there’s more going on in the story than we think. Neither of these goals justifies having one, and especially not two, prologues, when it fractures the beginning and we could find out in much more subtle and intriguing ways that there’s more going on in the story than it at first looks like. Prologues like this rob the reader of wondering; we’ve been told there’s a vampire, we’ve been shown in the most obvious way that he’s not a good one, we’ve been told there’s major risk to him somehow, and we know this is all connected to the girl. All of that material would be more impacting, and therefore more compelling, if it was worked into the story bits at a time and in more subtle ways, because then the reader wonders and asks questions. That’s key to tension. (The psychology behind telling a story on screen is slightly different for movies and TV shows than for books. Prologues may be part of that; I’m addressing the techniques used in telling this story as if it were a novel.)
The story hits a much stronger note when we switch to Elena’s POV just over two minutes into the episode. This is where “chapter one” starts, and is where the strong storytelling begins. Elena is writing in her diary, which makes the title of the show make sense for the viewers. I’m not a fan of the diary element in these first few episodes, partially because it’s a bit cheesy and partially because it’s also a form of telling. The diaries of the founders are a much stronger reason for the show’s title. However, we do have some great stuff happening here. 1) We are tightly focused on a girl in a specific moment. Tight focus is necessary for story beginnings, even for stories with huge casts and long backstories. Give us a single character, MAYBE two, to connect with, and focus on the moment, the particular action that is happening right then. 2) We’re also meeting Elena on a day something changed. Starting on “the day that’s different” is a fantastic device that enables readers to jump into action and follow a character as her world alters; right there, we have action and character development, simply from watching the character react to change. Elena here is vowing to make today different by hiding her still-present grief for her first day of senior year. 3) We hear her say “Yes, I feel much better” and the camera shows us family photos on her dresser. This is fantastic tension; we know something tragic happened. We figure out what when she immediately follows that with saying she lost her parents. I’d rather see that line cut and leave the readers wondering why she’s grieving. Raising a question and then not answering it immediately raises tension and helps to hook the readers, as long as they know enough to ground themselves.
And we do know a lot about Elena, even though she’s only been on screen for a few seconds. Her room and clothing show (see? showing, not telling) us that she’s a middle-class American teenager, the photos show us a happy family, we know something went wrong and she’s struggling. The very first page of Elena’s story gives us action, tension, a bit of context, and a compelling struggle for us to connect to. Grief is universal. So is struggling to present a strong face to the world. Most viewers can relate to her, and so far she’s likeable because of it. We also have her goal, which is vital to guiding the story. Managing her grief as she starts school is enough of a goal for now. Make sure your characters have a goal right off the bat; we need to know the goal so we’re interested in whether the character succeeds or fails. We’re already reading (or watching) to find out whether the character wins, and if so, how.
Note where the story begins: we don’t have a crowded stage with several characters, we don’t have a chunk of backstory or exposition, or a high-action chase, or epic danger. We’re allowed to settle into the world by watching one character struggle with something relatable. Details are brief and impacting, and tons of information is withheld. And we have questions: how did her parents die? Where is she going? Why is today important? We’ve spent about 40 seconds with Elena by this point, so about one page. Aim for that effect with your first page. Ground us, compel us, hook us. Make us question and relate. Keep the focus tight.
The next scene cuts to the kitchen as Elena walks in, and we meet our first new character: Jenna. We’re seeing the effects of Elena being parentless because Jenna doesn’t know what to get her for breakfast, the mood is hectic, and the room is a bit of a mess. This gives us the sense things are just the bumpy side of normal here. And that’s more tension.
Adding to the tension and hectic mood, Jeremy walks in. We saw him briefly in the family photo, so we can assume he’s related. We also get a question answered: Jenna mentions their first day of school. Opening pages need to continually raise questions– some big, some minor– and answering the minor ones as we go helps to make the reader trust that the author will make progress toward answering the big ones. That makes a huge difference in whether you’re hooking the reader or frustrating him. A frustrated reader puts a book down because he doesn’t know enough to make sense of the story. A reader who is hooked keeps reading to find out. Raise questions, answer a few, and keep raising more as you go. (Side note: keeping questions floating around does more than raise tension; it also prevents you from giving tons of backstory and info-dump, which remove questions, slow the pacing, and cause readers to skim.)
We’ve also got bits of character development scattered all through this. Jenna is overwhelmed but trying hard. She offers breakfast, lunch money, and anything else she can think of. She forgets about her presentation, and dashes out the door late for it. Jeremy has tension written all over him; from his movements to his lack of eye contact, he shows he’s withdrawn and unhappy. He takes the lunch money; Elena doesn’t. Elena, in fact, is the one to remind Jenna of her presentation. We immediately, less than 3 pages into the story, have these characters pegged: Jenna is trying but is in over her head, Jeremy is unhappy and acting out, and Elena is grieving, responsible, and trying to help others around her. This is enough of a sprinkling of character development for us to get a clear picture of who they are. Later they’ll get deeper, but it’s enough for now.
Right before the scene ends, we get the tension raised again: Elena asks her brother if he’s okay, he rolls his eyes and says, “Don’t start,” and Elena is annoyed and hurt. The focus shifts from Elena to the TV behind her, where we see a news broadcast with photos of the two people who were killed coming home from the concert during the prologue. We have tension between Elena and Jeremy, which lets us know there are problems there. We wonder why, and what kind of problems. We have a callback to the killings on the road, letting us know they’ll come up again and be important.
This is all in the first minute and a half of the show past the prologues, and probably about the equivalent of the first three pages of a story. A little more than this is what you’d include as sample pages in your query. This amount of story is actually more than most readers will give your book when they’re browsing in Barnes & Noble, and agents will often need even less to tell if your story isn’t for them.
Openings are difficult because they have to do so much in so little space. Sprinkling is the key. Even when you have a massive story and a large cast, keep the focus tight and as you expand it, just sprinkle in the tension and details and relationships. That’s what I want to emphasize here. Of course genre differences apply– frequently there’s more action and suspense in thrillers, for example. But in general, just use bits of information, shades of development. Sprinkle in those things, and you’ll have to room to get your plot and characters on stage, leaving room for character goals, tension, action, and suspense. Even the plot should develop in small steps. Notice none of the storylines have been developed yet. We don’t know much about any one thing, but we know a little bit about a lot of things. We have a hint of something supernatural. We’re grounded in a modern middle-class American high school life. We have a family in turmoil because of recent deaths. Our main character has a goal; Elena desperately wants to start off her senior year with a strong face. Plus, we have dozens of questions, and numerous possibilities for things to go wrong. School is starting, something’s wrong with Jeremy, Jenna is overwhelmed and might have trouble with these teenagers, and we know there’s a stranger in town and there’s been two killings. Readers will keep reading, and agents and editors would be interested because the story is already complex and layered with relatable characters, and the information release and tension are subtley done.
Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, a particularly strong element can carry weaker elements and still have a strong opening for the story. But if exceptions were what usually worked, they wouldn’t be called “exceptions.” And if you have a particularly strong element in your beginning, don’t burden it by making it carry a flawed structure or weak characters.
These are the kinds of things that make for a strong opening to a big story. Tight focus, a strong goal for the main character, questions, tension, suspense, a bit of context, development of the main character and their relationships, and enough action to take the story just a step forward. All this should happen in a very few number of pages, and the key is sprinkling. If you have chunks of any one thing in your first pages, chances are it’s crowding out other things that need to be there. It definitely can be done; TVD did all that, prologues included, in three minutes and thirty seconds. Sprinkle them in at the beginning, then pull on those threads once you have everything on stage.
This is part one of a series of posts on TVD episode one, so come back next time to look at how TVD pulls on all those threads!
What are your thoughts? Are you a TVD fan? What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing or structuring opening pages?