Oh, I know there are those of you who won’t agree with me. You’ll say plot is more important. I’ll make my case with the beginnings of two popular plot-heavy stories.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth, but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
I love this opening – it tells you so much. About the character, setting and even a foreshadowing of what’s to come. The whole first chapter lays out the world, and so much about Katniss, just by showing how she interacts with it. Brilliant.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
“ONCE there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.”
Only two examples, but you get the idea. So WHY is it so important to start with a character?
Imagine this. You’re on your way to to work, and you come upon a car accident in an intersection. Two cars, head on. Glass and debris scattered everywhere. What do you think/feel?
- Hope no one has been hurt
- Has someone called 911?
- There’s a bad start to someone’s day
- Great, this is going to slow me down
- Where are the cops?
But what do you think/feel if you recognize one of the cars – it’s your best friend’s! BAM! Whole new level of stress, right?
That’s the difference with starting your scene with ‘crisis’ as opposed to ‘conflict’. Conflict is always better (conflict requires character). Think about it: If we don’t empathize with the character, we don’t care what happens to them.
And it only takes a detail or two.
Alarm jangling, she cranked the wheel right to full-stop, but the river still expanded in the windshield. Shit. She was going in. There’d be no help; she was the only one stupid enough to be out in an ice storm. But her swelling eye care of Brad’s fury made that impossible. When you decide you’re finally leaving for good, you don’t check the weather first.
Are you invested in this character getting out alive? Yes. Why? You have empathy for her situation. In one paragraph, you understand her motivation, goal and conflict. It’s not hard to do – see how a few details make all the difference?
When I’m writing, I always start from character. I may even have a scene in my mind, but the character comes first – that way, I’m assured constant conflict. Because the plot becomes making them face their worst fears, right? I’ve written:
An orphan who learned early and well, not to trust her and her sister’s lives with anyone. After she has to turn her sister over to mental health professionals, the only opportunity she has is for a career where she has to rely on others for her safety. Days Made of Glass
A former Army medic with PTSD can’t work with soldiers in pain anymore. She cares too much. She takes a job with Sports Medicine for the Professional Bull Riders, because she’ll never care about spoiled, overpaid sports stars. Except her logic doesn’t work. Sweet on You
A damaged young woman, running from a Cartel, takes a job in a small town where she meets a Navajo who’s determined to help his tribe and keep his bloodline pure. She can’t stay – he can’t let her go. Home at Chestnut Creek
I promise, if you start with character first, you’ll always have enough conflict to last the entire book.
Do you start with plot or character when you start a story? Why?
The second in Laura’s Chestnut Creek Series, Home at Chestnut Creek, released July 2. It’s getting fantastic reviews! Just click on the photo to get more info.
I use The Hunger Games first pages as examples of character writing all the time. They are great examples of worldbuilding as well, planting clues for the reader of the story to come. Great blog post!
Thanks, Pat. I think Hunger Games is one of the great openers – world and character-building is superb!