- Inciting Incident
- Reaction Phase
- New Info/Dark Night of the Soul
- Planning Phase
- Wrap Up
Story Structure Step 1: The Introduction
First, what is it, and how long should it be?
So, yes, the introduction really does what it says: it introduces a reader to your story, world, and characters. There is a lot going on there!
From a reader’s perspective, it should be exciting, informative, spark a connection with the main character, and at the very least make them curious about the rest of the book. All of that must exist without overwhelming or being too unfamiliar. And, of course, it has to be grammatically strong enough they aren’t groaning on every page as they roll their eyes at obvious mistakes. Miss any of those things in your introduction, and you’ll lose the reader if not the sale.
Wait! What? The sale???
Yes, the introduction comprises the first one to three chapters, or about the first 15%, of your novel. So, this is a large part of what readers can download as a free sample or see online. Suave readers will be looking at this piece of your book to decide if they want to buy it. Keeping that in mind is an important part of the final stages of edits to the introduction.
And yes, final stages! Absolutely do not try to make your introduction perfect before you finish writing your darn novel.
I’ve witnessed way too many novice authors get lost and bogged down creating the perfect introduction because nailing this part is such a huge aspect to writing a story. Don’t get lost in a cycle of edits to improve something that you won’t really be able to judge how it relates to the end ending until, well, you write the end!
What Should Happen in the Introduction?
As writers, our perspective of what should happen in an introduction is a list of advice and ideals to hit:
- Have a great opening line
- But don’t make it about the weather or description
- Start with action
- Introduce the main character
- Introduce your awesome world
- Introduce a problem
- Provide background so the reader isn’t lost
- Make sure you describe things well enough the reader has some visuals
- Don’t info dump
Are you hyperventilating yet? It can feel completely overwhelming to tackle even two of those items in an average chapter. Try stuffing it all in a chapter or three and you might just never finish writing. Which is part of why I say don’t worry about it. Not until you finish your story.
Until you finish writing, you might not know really how the story should begin, especially if this is your first novel. I know for my first novel, I cut off three chapters before I found the beginning that I thought worked. The other three made sense, but they were too boring, too slow, filled with too much background. They didn’t matter, and they certainly didn’t hook a reader.
You have to trust that the reader will be able to catch on if you provide enough clues. And all you want to do is provide that bread trail that leads them onward. Give them enough so they are curious to see where the path goes, but not so much that they know the end or every detail of every leaf they are walking over. Either of those will lose them.
And for a first time writer, you might not realize who actually is the main character, what events are pivotal, or how your character needs to change until you get your first draft finished. A lot of having confidence in what you are writing is what needs to be there comes after you’ve written many, many stories. For your first few, just write, plot, and pay attention to see how things develop.
Advice for Your Intro
Whether you plot out the Intro before you write or come back to it to edit after finishing, there are a few things that can help you lay the foundation to something solid.
My biggest and best advice for a great intro is to think of it as a short story. Actually, think of it as a mini-short story that is the setup for the REST of the novel.
In other words, it doesn’t deal with the big novel plot, the major events of the character arc, or any of that. It is, instead, a snapshot of the character before anything overwhelming happens to set them off on the realizations and troubles that occur in the rest of the novel.
If your main character hopes and pines for a way to leave their dreary life, that is what the reader will see. If she is a perfectly content and happy child, that is what you should reveal. If there is hidden injustice, discontent, or something amiss, it should leak around the edges of your character’s average day (unless their entire life is dedicated to fighting it, which is a bit of an odd and heavy start to a fantasy story, but you could manage it with a bit of practice!).
These issues aren’t the key events that the mini-story revolves around; they just lay clues the reader shouldn’t even realize are important until later events bring them to the fore.
So what do you focus on?
Like a short story, there should be something going on that the character needs to solve. It shouldn’t be anything earth shattering or be connected to the over-arching novel plot about to unfold. Instead, it is on the level of the goats that the farm girl is responsible for got out because her childhood arch-nemesis unlatched the gate just to make the girl late for school. Because this girl, our little heroine, is the favorite pupil in the arch-nemesis’ favorite subject and favorite teacher. You know, the one class the arch-nemesis wants to be the best at.
And in that brief outline, what did I give you? Can you feel what this girl’s average day is like? A bit about what her world is like? Who she is? That is the level you want to give your reader.
The world should be the backdrop to this completely ordinary day and not center stage. Only share what you must so that the reader knows the girl’s age, how many goats she is responsible for, if her mother or father blames her for their escape. Does her brother laugh as he skips off to school while she trudges off along the muddy road with a rope?
Show the character in a kind, decent, interesting, whatever enough that the reader cares for him or her. Reveal enough of the world that it feels real, but also familiar despite it being somewhere fantastical. You have the entire novel to show the differences. In the first few pages, focus on commonalities to this world and not the differences. In the above example, that is:
- mud (weather)
- irritating siblings
With those foundation stones, you assure the reader that this world is amazingly vivid while soothing them that it is also familiar and won’t leave them so confused they feel lost. They’ll care for and understand the character while glimpsing the world at large.
And, if you write it real enough, they’ll be curious to see how this little adventure goes so that they’ll read a few more pages to find …
Well, we get to that soon! 😉
For more tips on plotting, check out our Plot Development Book! Learn not only how to plot, but how to create characters, align them with character arcs, and tie the character’s journey with your plot to create tension filled, character-driven fiction!