Sometimes novels jump straight into the action and don’t let up, but most of the time you’ll need a bit of time to introduce the characters, show the setting, and get the reader into the flow of the novel before the main plot kicks off.
But the pages before the inciting incident are fraught with peril.
Have you ever found yourself making versions of these excuses when you know your opening is slow?
“Just be patient, it gets going later.”
“But this stuff will be important later on.”
“But [INSERT BOOK] was slow for the first 50 pages and it’s a bestseller!”
Don’t make these excuses! A novel can and should be engaging from the first page to the last.
Luckily, after reading this post you’ll never have to make these excuses again.
(Also: I’m going to refer to “protagonist” in the singular but these principles apply even if there are multiple protagonists).
Let’s start with what not to do.
Don’t “introduce” characters in a static way
The primary culprits behind snooze-fest openings are scenes that simply exist to tell us something about characters or elements of the plot that will become important later on.
You’ve read these scenes before.
Conversations with friends about nothing in particular. Trips to work or school just to show us that the boss or bully is a jerk. Parents calling to very transparently nag about everything wrong with a protagonist’s life that will eventually be solved by the dashing rogue who shows up on page 25.
You don’t need to introduce “dynamics.” You don’t need to show the every single relationship before the plot gets going. We can meet all these people as the plot is actually unfolding.
Here’s what to do instead. Start with a protagonist who wants something from page one and is actively going after it.
The trick here is that you may need some time to get to the big thing the protagonist wants. So introduce a mini-quest.
What’s a mini-quest?
A mini-quest is something the protagonist wants and is going after at the start of the novel. It creates a bridge between the opening and the inciting incident, giving our introduction to the world of the novel shape and purpose.
(BTW, I’m pretty sure I invented this term and it’s not in common use, so if you use it in conversation with other writing people they may have no idea what you’re talking about.)
For instance, in Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, I knew I needed a bit of time before the inciting incident arrives and the kids blast off to space. So I introduced a mini-quest: Jacob has to save his friend from an evil substitute teacher and deal with the consequences.
Other examples of mini-quests:
- Harry trying to make sense of the mysterious invitations arriving in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before the inciting incident: Hagrid invites Harry to Hogwarts.
- Zélie training (mini-quest #1) and trying to sell a sailfish (mini-quest #2) before helping Amari escape and discovering the scroll (inciting incident) in Children of Blood and Bone. (Amari has her own mini-quest before the inciting incident, but not including for brevity’s sake)
- Arthur Dent trying to stop his house from being torn down for a new interstate and Earth being “torn down” for a new interstellar highway (mini-quest) before Ford Prefect gets him into space (inciting incident) in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Why mini-quests work
Mini-quests are effective because we’re naturally drawn to characters who 1) want something and 2) are actively going after that thing. We become invested in finding out whether the characters are going to get that thing and we become curious how they’re going to go about it. We learn a whole lot about the characters that way.
Orienting readers around a character wanting something also helps us contextualize what’s happening and we learn more about the world of the novel than we would via static exposition. When the character is going after something and there’s momentum in the plot, we can much easier process what’s happening with that north star orienting us.
Mini-quests are a really effective way of showing characters in their natural environment. We’re seeing a protagonist’s hopes, dreams, fears, and natural ambitions before the inciting incident arrives to jar them out of their usual life.
They’re also way more fun to read than a bunch of random conversations that don’t amount to much.
How to create a good mini-quest
So how do you go about creating a good mini-quest?
Here are some tips:
Channel a character’s ambitions and fears
It’s really helpful to see what a character wants before the inciting incident arrives to jar them out of their normal life.
Paint as clear and specific a picture as possible. Sure, the protagonist might want to ace a piano solo, but then what? Show the reader their dreams of Juilliard and the specific plane they’ll use to tour the world.
And what happens if they fail? What humiliations are they imagining?
Always think about raising the stakes. If you can align the mini-quest with these deeper hopes and fears, the opening will feel like it means more and it will perfectly set up the inciting incident.
Show them navigating their world
It’s helpful to show a protagonist moving through their world in two key ways.
First, show us the physical setting, which will draw a helpful contrast with the life the protagonist lives when their quest gets underway.
But perhaps more importantly, show the protagonist bumping up against obstacles in their current life. Help us understand their dreams but also what’s standing in their way.
Think about how the “before” life of the character can set up the dynamics that make the inciting incident land with as much force as possible.
Intertwine the “before” and after”
Have fun with the mini-quest! It can be a way of planting some Easter Eggs that become important later.
For instance, in Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow the encounter with the evil substitute teacher might feel like a one-off incident… until Jacob later finds himself trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers.
Think of ways you can draw contrasts and heighten the difference between the world before the inciting incident and the world after the inciting incident. J.R.R. Tolkein does this to great effect with the contrast between the bucolic shire and hellish Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
Do you have any favorite “mini-quests” from novels? Any thoughts or tips? Take to the comments!
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Art: Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire by Thomas Cole