Conflict Begins on Page One

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I’ve written a couple starts on my new novel and been dissatisfied with every one. Why? Because they lacked tension. The first chapter must start the conflict of the story, must include enough detail, enough characterization, enough conflict to hook a reader.

My early drafts were an exploration of the characters (a boy, his mom and dad) and of the setting (the beach). They were nice explorations, trial runs, but in reality, I was not satisfied with any of them. They were boring. Not enough conflict. How did I find this new starting place?

Look to the Overall Story for hints on Starting Places

One problem in early drafts was that I was focusing too hard on the current scene. Yes, I needed a scene that was grounded in reality, a scene with a goal and conflict and one that ended in a disaster that set up the story. But I was too focused on the beach, to the exclusion of the larger issues of the story I am telling. I backed up a bit and thought about the overall story. How could I start it in an exciting way that would also echo the larger themes of the story? I know that the beginning should hint at and resonate for the larger story.

A favorite example of this is in the classic YA novel, THE CHOCOLATE WARS by Robert Cormier. It begins like this: “They murdered him.”

The context is a football practice where the main character is way undersized and the rough game pounds him to submission. It echoes the main story, in which a boy refuses to sell chocolate bars and peer pressure almost kills him. In the final scene (SPOILER ALERT), Jerry is beaten by classmates. Literally, they almost murder him.

The opening line () set up everything. The opening scene of struggling against overwhelming odds sets up the theme.

Finding a Mentor Text

As I was thinking about this story, I wanted to find some examples to emulate. Thinking in general terms, I took the story’s basic topic, theme, setting and genre and looked around at different stories. For this, I didn’t care if it was a horror story, a YA romance, or what genre it was. I was merely looking for strategies to open a story with conflict. My main criteria was “conflict on every page.”

I found several texts and tried imitating them to see if the approach would work. The text today was a classic and I actually ripped off the first sentence (which I may or may not eventually keep). The result was a different sort of opening that leaves much unsaid but also hints at much. The new chapter ends with a major plot question, so it will lead easily to the next chapter.

It’s a new beginning, one that feels right. After three revisions, I may eventually come back and rewrite the first chapter, but for now, this is a solid start that feels right enough that I can work on chapter two.

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