Read, read, read, read, read. In addition to listening to audiobooks while I do things around the house, I’ve been reading for a flash fiction contest. As a result, I’ve been noodling over how to create a strong opening and a plot that works throughout the length of the book.
Before we discuss this, we have to agree on what a plot is. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call it a series of events that tell a story.
Most of us have heard the advice that we need to start our story with something big and exciting. We do this to create tension because if we keep the reader on the edge of their seat, they will keep reading. Right?
I waffle because here’s the problem. We often confuse BIG ACTION with tension. We start with bank heists and natural disasters and alien invasions. But the problem is that the reader doesn’t yet know the character. So they care in that they don’t want to see anyone caught in a bank robbery, a hurricane, or The War of the Worlds. But your character? They don’t know this character enough to identify the individual. This means that you would be better off showing the reader a problem designed specifically for your character.
I’m serious. Don’t just plop my down in the middle of some sort of Xipe Totec, skin walker story. First things first, it isn’t original. Nope. I’ve read it before. Make me care about your character.
In “The Secret Ingredient of Successful Openings” on Jane Friedman’s on blog, Susan DeFreitas talks about how to show the reader that the character is getting herself into trouble. Perhaps she does it by ignoring her inner voice that is trying to tell her that her new boyfriend isn’t to be trusted. Or she is pre-occupied with the nasty text she just got from said boyfriend and walks into the middle of the bank robbery. Or, the boyfriend really isn’t bad news, even if everyone around her says that he is and this is a story about overcoming societal prejudice. So you open with her meeting him after school in defiance of her sister’s warnings.
The tension needs to fit your character and their situation. This means that you need to know your character to create the tension. You need to know the character to string together the plot that tells her story.