At its core, story is about change. You can’t have a compelling story without change or a transition to a new status quo. No one reads a book because the character stays the same or nothing happens to them. We read books because we need an escape, want to see the world from a different perspective, or even “experience” something different without having to actually go through the risks or challenges ourselves. But in order to make the change or challenge interesting or impactful, we first need to see the protagonist in their day-to-day life.
It’s important to have a snapshot of life for your protagonist before change happens–before your inciting incident. This allows the reader to spend a little time with your hero before their life goes off the rails. They get to understand your main character, how they handle the day to day, and whether or not this is someone the reader can live with for the remainder of your story.
Jessica Brody, in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, calls this the Opening Image. In your Opening Image, you’re setting your readers’ expectations for the rest of your story. Show us what life is like before you create the change that will push your protagonist off their usual path. Use this time to show us their internal conflict before throwing in an external conflict. What keeps them up at night? What are their needs, goals, or motivations? Where are they currently in their lives? And by that I don’t mean location–where are they mentally and emotionally?
Check out this video about Opening Shots in movies. It’s centered around filmmaking, but this applies to all storytelling in general.
The start of your story needs to show us not only what normal life is like for your character, but also what their current struggles or goals are. But keep in mind, you need to show us, not tell us. Don’t tell us your protagonist is struggling with her confidence. “Cassandra felt unsure of herself.” Show us how she’s struggling. “Cassandra wrung her hands and looked down as she tried to find the right words to say.”
In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron says that a story “is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.” As readers, we want to see how our heroine will change and grow for the better, or you know, fall deeper into their internal conflict. How does she handle the change or the problem that is your inciting incident that causes her to change herself?
Let’s look at an example. In The Neverending Story, our first chapter follows Bastian as he’s running inside a bookstore. The bookstore owner questions him, eventually finding out that Bastian is running away and hiding from other kids who are bullying him. During this scene, we learn that Bastian is a young boy, he’s bullied regularly, and that he’s weak and frightened, even though he doesn’t want to be. This one scene provides us with a quick look at Bastian’s every day life while showing us his internal conflict. We get an idea that this story is going to be about how he grows courageous, more confident in himself, and better able to handle and control his fear.
To summarize, stories are about change, so it’s key that we understand what normal is for your character so that the change is far more impactful and compelling. And if you’re a writer who’s anything like me, I like to make my characters suffer before they grow!
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