In our openings we have this pressure to get all the critical elements in, to set up the story. We must introduce the main character (MC), the antagonist, the setting, the inciting incident, the hint of the main conflict. Notice I used the “must.” This is not perhaps a fallacy but rather simply the wrong way to approach a novel’s opening.
Try not to think of yourself as the wizard behind the curtain (or a more contemporary Architect in the Matrix Trilogy). You are also not Dorothy or Neo. But these are not actors on a stage either, because that would suggest you are the director or playwrite feeding them your carefully composed lines.
So where do you fit in the process exactly? You are the producer, the one behind the scenes making it happen. You provide the venue, the setting. You put in the time, the research, and–dare I say–the cash? in order to get this production going. But the producer works behind the scenes. It’s not the most perfect metaphor, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make: take yourself out of the equation as much as possible.
Try to picture your characters as living, breathing people. They make their own decisions, whether out of fear or love or obligation. If your characters aren’t clear in your mind, as beings separate from you and from the other characters in your story, then some wonkey things can start to happen:
- They speak like you.
- They make decisions you would make.
- They act like you.
When this happens they cease to be themselves. They are your sock puppets and the plot revolves around the author’s decisions and not the characters’ decisions.
Again, pull yourself out of the equation. Let only your characters’ decisions move your opening and plot forward. Let your characters dictate the pace, the order of information, the importance of a given element of the story. Believe that they know themselves best and listen to them. You’ll hear them say, “No, I wouldn’t say that. No, I wouldn’t do that.” Trust them.
It may sound strange to say it this way. Non-writers and new writers are often perplexed at this notion of made up characters speaking to the author, telling him or her what to do. But it does happen. And it’s definitely happened to me. You can say it’s writers block but really it’s character block. Your MC simply won’t do or say what you want and the mounting frustration can simply drive a writer mad.
An agent told me recently that the ending to my first novel was perfect for that story. That might be true but it certainly isn’t the ending I wanted. I would have preferred something much more elaborate, something more Dickensian. But by that point, I had given my MC full reign over her life. She told me where and how the story would end and I merely paid attention.
So learn to trust your MC. Because, you see, to her it isn’t a story. It’s simply life—messy, confusing, and painful. And it’s that mess that keeps reader’s eyes riveted to the page.