The Secret Ingredient of Successful Openings

Image: miniature wooden carvings representing standing figures. At the center is one figure, painted blue, lying down.
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Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach.

There’s something it took me years as an editor to figure out: many of the most common problems novelists face with their stories appear to be issues with plot but in fact are issues with character.

Openings that don’t quite work are a good example.

The conventional wisdom on the opening of a novel tells us that it must have:

  • A clear point of view
  • A compelling voice
  • Compelling characters
  • Specific details
  • Tension of some type

That’s all excellent advice. The only problem is, when writers think of “tension of some type,” they tend to think of external trouble—say, a car crash, or the protagonist being fired from her job.

This type of conflict might compel the reader’s attention for a few pages, but what really sucks us in—and what really makes agents and acquisitions editors sit up and take notice—is internal trouble, because it’s trouble of this type that signals the beginning of a character arc.

Some story gurus refer to this sort of trouble as the protagonist’s wound, or shadow. More commonly, it’s known as the protagonist’s internal issue: Some problem on the inside that, by the end of the story, they’re going to overcome—or, perhaps, tragically fail to.

As readers, we’re generally not aware that we’re even on the lookout for this element of a story. But if we’re three chapters in and the protagonist just appears to be a 100% happy, well-adjusted person—or even just a perfect person facing imperfect circumstances—where’s the story in that? (The exception to this rule is mysteries and thrillers—genres in which character arc isn’t a requirement.) 

And here’s where it gets tricky, in terms of craft. Because at the beginning of the story, the protagonist herself can’t see what her internal problem is—she doesn’t even know she has one. (That’s what the story is going to force her to see.)

So how do you make sure the reader gets it, in those all-important opening pages, even if your protagonist doesn’t?

Here are three effective strategies.

1. Nagging doubts or misgivings

Say you open with a new venture—a business deal of some type, or even a marriage. In this sort of scenario, nothing so clearly signals the presence of internal trouble as mixed feelings.

Maybe the protagonist has chosen the wrong business partner, or life partner. Or maybe they’re entering into this partnership with the right person but for the wrong reasons.

Either way, misgivings on the part of the protagonist—even if they immediately tamp down, rationalize, and dismiss them—send a clear signal to the reader that something isn’t quite right with this character. Because if they have misgivings about this venture, why are they going through with it anyway?

2. Self-generated trouble

Earlier, I mentioned two examples of external trouble: a car crash, or being fired from a job. Neither of those scenarios necessarily signal the presence of an internal issue for the protagonist—but they could.

The car crash that resulted from a drunk driver T-boning your protagonist? That’s external.

The car crash that resulted from them fuming over being passed over for a promotion? That’s self-generated.

Being fired from a job because their boss is a generally horrible person? That’s external.

Being fired from a job because the protagonist herself was always late? That’s self-generated.

Self-generated trouble indicates some way that the protagonist is getting in their own way. It tells us that there’s some issue on the inside this character isn’t dealing with, and now it’s come to the point where that issue is starting to have a negative impact on their life.

3. The voice of dissent

Maybe your protagonist doesn’t have mixed feelings about what’s happening at the beginning. Maybe they’re headed into that business deal with stars in their eyes, and every expectation of success; maybe they’re walking up to the altar in full confidence that they’ve made the right choice.

Even so, if there’s someone else who expresses doubts about that new venture, your reader will wonder if those doubts might be valid—if there might be something the protagonist isn’t seeing, because of some internal block or blind spot.

And this is true of virtually any ground situation where the protagonist thinks everything in their life is perfectly fine: if someone else shows up to tell them that it isn’t, that they need to get their act together and change, the reader will have a clear sense that the story to come will in fact chronicle that change.

Now I’d love to hear from you.

What is your protagonist’s internal issue in your story? And what is it, in the first few chapters of your novel, that indicates the “trouble on the inside” to your reader?

Drop a reply in the comments.

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