You have your story written and you are ready to revise the beginning.
Beginnings are so important. I’m talking about true beginnings here — Chapter 1 beginnings. Sometimes the following that I talk about here does take place in a prologue, but there’s a thing about prologues that most writers fail to realize: a prologue is part of the story, but it is outside of the story. Chapter 1 shouldn’t start off where the prologue ends. If it does, it’s not a true prologue. Now, if you add an epilogue at the end, you have created what is known as a “frame.” Think of this as a frame that holds a painting. It helps to contain the painting within it’s borders and helps to hang the painting, but it’s not the painting itself. Oh, there are some artists that get fancy and and extend their painting onto the frame, but that’s the exact same kind of bleed that you will have where your story blends into the prologue. So, for now, let’s pretend that your story doesn’t have a prologue but you just start it at the first chapter. There’s a lot to pay attention to and all of it is necessary. Fortunately, there is a kind of formula that will help.
It starts with knowing your hero’s journey. The very first part of your hero’s journey is to show the hero at home. This isn’t necessarily a “home” as in a location, but rather what your character is good at. The character is “at home” with who he or she is.
So what’s your character’s strength? What is the one thing that puts them in tune with the world? Where are they most comfortable?
That’s step one. Step two is what’s the action that’s taking place? Being good at something generally they are doing something. So what’s the middle of that action? What are they caught up in?
Step three is knowing how this scene will lead into the Call to Adventure.
Now realize that you have to do most of the first two steps within the first page or two.
At the start of The Three Books, Steigan is out in the forest looking for killers. I have had him using his tracking skills, but the reader doesn’t know that; my character wouldn’t have thought about it (“Oh what a good tracker am I!”) so it became unimportant for the reader to know that. He has come across a woman dancing in the forest and he tries to puzzle out who she is. He is watching his movements and knows that he’s got one shot at this; if he fails, more people will die. It instantly shows that he’s a skilled warrior, smart, perceptive, and aware of his mission. This defines my character in a nutshell.
Let’s look at another example:
“What are we going to do now?” Nyree asked me as she laid her bundle of wildflowers atop the fresh grave mound.
The old woman had told us not to mourn her passing, but how could I not? She’d taken in two half-starved little waifs she’d found lost and scared in the forest. She’d explained about my magic, saying that it was wild having come on so strongly so late in my life. She’d helped me learned to hide it as she had her own. Now I’d lost a kindred spirit and Nyree was asking me what we were going to do now.
I knew the answer I wanted. I was perfectly happy here. I could live out the rest of my days in the old woman’s cabin, hiding from a world that wouldn’t accept me as she had done.
But Nyree… like many girls her age I’m sure, she’d become enamored with the romantic notions she’d been reading about in the many books the old woman had owned. Many days, the two of them had sat together and giggled while sharing passages. I’d been outside trying to repair the house and grounds, yet their laughter had reached me anyway. While the old woman taught me about my magic, she taught Nyree how to be a woman.
The old woman knew that one day we’d have to return.
I guess that Nyree had sacrificed many years for me to be here learning about my wild magic. She had wanted to be back with our people, I knew. So now, I guess it was time to return to our people for Nyree’s sake. It was her time to live.
I would be happy staying here.
This is actually a first draft of another story I have. This is actually chapter one though I do have a prologue which happens when these two characters are children — he essentially blows up his village, killing everyone there except for him and his sister. It’s entirely an accident because he can’t control his magic and actually this is the second time that has happened. Because of the large gap in time, I made it a prologue because the characters had wandered and found this old woman who took them in and trained his magic. There is a lot of telling in this piece, but we won’t even get into that here. Let’s just look at the formula.
Step 1: Is my character showing a strength? Honestly, no. He’s not even at home within himself. He’s mourning. Since the reader has no idea who he’s mourning other than by what is being told, there is no emotional connection for the reader. Because the prologue has him being so destructive as a young child, the reader will know he’s powerful magically, but they won’t know what he’s done with it the last few years. Is there any indicator here what his strength might be? His love for his sister, his magic if he has control of it now, being self-sufficient. Okay, so does any of that describe my character? Yes, all three. So, my hero at home would be a scene that incorporated those elements.
I want to think about Step 2 for a moment. I need to show my character adoring his sister while having control of his magic and being self-sufficient. What action would do that? Once I know the answer to that, I can give it a better beginning.
Let’s look at Step 3. The scene has to lead to the Call to Adventure. The old woman dying and the children (now teenagers) having to decide what to do next is a call to adventure. Because my character is so focused on giving his sister a new life, the death has become a catalyst. So, I really have to assess if my prologue is indeed a prologue or if that’s my hero at home. With what I’ve already written about the prologue, what do you think? Do you think my character is showing a strength, is he feeling at home? No. He’s not. He’s a kid who can’t control his power. He’s helpless to it. So I need a scene which will lend itself to a Call and show my character now being strong.
Let’s try this again:
A cold darkness wafted through the forest like a thick fog. I followed my sister, letting her choose the paths through the trees. We were out before sunrise. This would be a long day. Three orbs of light bobbed in the air just in front of Nyree and lit the trail ahead. She reached out to touch one with her finger.
“It’ll bite you,” I warned her over her shoulder, even though she just laughed at my warning and poked at the white-yellow globe. With a thought, I transformed it into a tiny flying dragon which snapped at her fingers. She hid her fingers beneath her arms which she held closely to her body as the dragon chased her around in circles.
“Come on,” she squealed. “I want to have enough dawn flowers picked.”
“You’ve carried two bundles back to the house already.”
She hugged herself tighter. The snap dragon swarmed around in a circle and retook orb form, then floated up like a bubble to join the others. “Only two. That’s so few.”
He wanted to remind her that the old woman no longer carried, that her energy had moved on from the physical shell of this world, but Nyree wasn’t ready to hear that yet. “You’ll have time,” he said softly. “I still have a grave to dig.”
“It’s going to get awfully quiet this evening with out her,” Nyree said. “What are we going to do now?”
While this isn’t the scene I’m likely to use when I finally get around to doing the rewrite, it works as an example. Now we show the character in control of his magic as well as having fun with his sister even though they both are mourning.
Let’s revisit the steps. Step 1: Does it show the character’s strength? Is he at home? Yes. He’s with his sister, making her laugh and that will endear him to the reader, especially when the reader discovers why they are out in the forest at night. He may not be comfortable in the scene, trying to keep his own emotions in check while his sister is about to cry (again). He knows he has more work to do before this day is done, but he cannot be whiny or weak about it. It’s his duty.
Step 2: Is it in the middle of the action? Yes. The old woman has died and they are preparing to bury her — those two actions are a start and an end of themselves. In the first scene, they had already buried her. The action was over. And yes, in rewriting the scene with these questions in mind has made me have that realization that I truly have now started it in the middle of the action.
Step 3: Does this lead to the Call to Adventure? No longer is the old woman’s death a call to adventure. I’m not sure yet because this clip is short, but my guess would be that a further call would come during the burial or shortly thereafter. We’ve lost all of the character’s thoughts about how his sister needs to be around people so she can live a “normal life.” So, there has to be something else that will come along and drive them out of their home. There will be another catalyst to act as the call, even if it is just the character thinking about how his sister needs a life, though that will probably have some sort of instigating factor which makes him think that way.
There you have it.
If nothing else, just remember to show your character being strong in the beginning. They have the rest of the book to be flawed and mess things up. You, however, only have those first few pages to get the reader on your side for this character and that means letting your character be confident.