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I am a few thousand words into my newest draft and starting to question if I picked the right beginning. As usual, when I get back into the habit of writing regularly, I have also gotten back into the habit of reading about how to write.

There are two very core ideas I've come across that I really like the sound of, but that seem to conflict with each other.

On the one hand, the three act structure says we should start with exposition. We should introduce the players, introduce the setting, and set the stage for the conflicts that are to follow. Looking at the books I'm reading now and have read in the past, especially fantasy books (my genre of choice as a writer), I can clearly see an exposition period in all of them. The characters are introduced in their element, and are allowed to live a few days or at least a few hours of their normal lives before things pick up.

On the other hand, you're supposed to start things with a bang. The first sentence of your book is supposed to hook the reader for the rest of the page, the first page hook the reader for the rest of the chapter, and the first chapter hook the reader for the rest of the book. Things have to get off the ground, now, if you want to have any chance of keeping a reader around long enough to finish this paragraph, never mind your 100,000 word novel.

The two seem incompatible for me. I went for the latter approach in this revision, but I feel like there are just too many questions unanswered. On the other hand, if I went for the former approach, I would be thinking "who would even get this far?" by the time I hit the first "disaster" of the three act structure.

Is there a happy middle ground?

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The 2006 Star Trek might have an answer. The movie basically followed a three act structure where the first act had two parts. The first part was highly action-packed/fast-paced but it was expository as well as to why the hero was destined to be a hero. It is essentially a Hero Journey, it just started a bit earlier than the hero was born. If your protagonist comes from a worthy/interesting family line, this start's even more fitting. –  Mussri Sep 13 '12 at 10:17
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Star Trek 2009: The Hero's Journey, Now With More Lens Flare! –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '12 at 13:20
    
@LaurenI, Star Trek 2009, that's the one. I can't believe I confused 6 with 9! Oh, and ST 2 will have more lens flare; it's confirmed! (Note: FunMade!) –  Mussri Sep 13 '12 at 14:35
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5 Answers 5

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There's no incompatibility as long as your characters are exciting enough to begin with.

Consider Rali, a thief in a fantasy kingdom. Rali will be part of a party of unwilling warriors sent to recover a magical artifact from beyond the Kralon Veil. He will be coerced into this by the enigmatic Count Maskyl for reasons that are not entirely clear.

We could introduce Rali to the reader as he is pickpocketing in the market where he is arrested and then made available for coercion by Maskyl.

But maybe...

We could be allowed to understand that for Rali to be coerced is a way of life. When we meet him he has been forced to steal a rare jewel from a corrupt merchant to settle a gambling debt. We've upped the risk and, when he gets the jewel and escapes into the market place, we understand, automatically, why Maskyl targets him. Except he needs to be caught, which kind of undermines his master-thief credentials.

But maybe...

In the market place he is only discovered because his long time adversary, City Marshal Kund, knows that Rali has sympathy with street urchins; Rali himself grew up in that life. Kund publicly and falsely accuses a local urchin of petty theft and determines to cut off the boy's right hand. Rali is forced to break cover to save the boy, showing his underlying decency.

SUMMARY: If your characters have lives packed with interest, excitement and adventure you shouldn't have a problem introducing them and making the introduction pop with excitement. Think the little one act chase at the opening of most Bond movies.

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I believe this is one of those questions where, if you knew the perfect answer to it, you would never get another form rejection again. Unfortunately there is no perfect answer.

You are right, the two concepts are in conflict with each other and in many ways the opening of your book is going to be a balance between them. Too much exposition and the opening is bland, to little and you don't care much about the characters.

Now keep in mind, novels are allowed to start a bit slowly, you can spend a chapter or so setting things up before getting to the a major event of the story. As long as you can keep it interesting people will read it, and the best way to do that is to make it about the characters and how they interact with the world. It also lets you show what is 'normal' before things start going to pot.

If you really feel you want to show the action right away, maybe start with a prolog show what is going on before it involves the main characters. Then you can start that out with the bag, get the ball rolling for a page or tow, then jump into your main characters with chapter one. The upshot of this is it adds some tension as to when they will be involved in everything that is going wrong while letting you establish everything. Starting with a big bag is more important for a short story, where you don't have the time to set things in motion, but have to hit the ground running.

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What you might want to do is get the whole thing written as a three-act piece with exposition in the beginning. Set it aside for a month, and then come back and see if the opening is too slow. If it is, now you can figure out a way (as Fox Cutter suggested) to add in a prologue or some other in media res opening which creates the bang you're looking for. But you'll have something to start with. You can't edit a blank page.

Also, having a slow opening (exposition) is more of the classical Hero's Journey. Not every story follows that pattern. The idea of the exposition opener is to set establish the Normal World which the Hero has to depart to go on the Journey. If the Hero is already on a Journey, or if Journey is not what your Hero does (for example, if your Hero is a detective, or a doctor, or a mercenary in the middle of a war zone), then you only need to explain as much as is necessary to understand the setting of the story.

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A useful tip I read about (The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass) is to use what he calls microtension to hook the reader. This is where tension is created by conflicted feelings within the characters. That is, what are they doing or saying that makes them feel upset, or uncomfortable? What are the feelings warring inside them, and why are they incompatible?

I like using this for my starts, as I tend to write more character-driven pieces. It still has the tension to hook the reader, but it works quite well with exposition as well.

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With a mind on current buying trends, I would recommend starting with a bang. More and more people are buying their books online rather than going to a book store and browsing the shelves. As this trend has developed, an increasing number of people are also now "sampling" the book before buying. Most books sold online allow potential customers to download the first 20% or so as a sample before buying, and that is what is most likely to influence their purchase.

When you take into consideration the front matter (table of contents and such), which will take up a portion of that sample, you will have even fewer pages with which to persuade the reader to buy your book. As a result, your exposition needs to be entertaining enough to engage the reader and encourage them to read more, or exciting enough to engage your reader from the start and make them want to read more.

For example, look at the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson. The first book is an epic fantasy that follows the exposition approach. This epic fantasy is the first in a planned trilogy, and it lays the groundwork for a very large story. Most people found the first one-third (exposition) to be rather slow, but absolutely loved the last two-thirds. This would indicate that they preferred the action over the background or setup. Anyone who samples this book is only going to see that first one-third (or less) and will probably not be engaged enough to buy the book, let alone the next eight books in the series! (Fortunately for him, word of mouth got his first trilogy going, and people couldn't sample back then like they can now!)

A new writer who is trying to get noticed and sell that first book might find it difficult to get a writing career started with this approach. Providing action right from the start is more likely to engage those readers who are willing to sample your book and then take a chance on a new and unproven writer.

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This is a really excellent piece of advice which I would never have considered. e-readers really have changed the literary landscape. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '12 at 16:49
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Providing conflict from the start, not action. Conflict with action is ok, but you can have conflict without action. +1 anyway ;) –  John Smithers Sep 13 '12 at 20:12
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