Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, December 24, 2012

Writing This Novel part II

by Kathleen Bradean

In Part I, I told you about how I came up with the idea for my WIP (work in progress) and the title. This article will focus on the beginning of the novel.

Word One. Or, where to start.

You might be thinking “Hey, you told us about your vision of the story in Part I, why don’t you open with that?” That’s a great question. Many times your first impression might be your natural opening scene, but not always. I found this out the hard way with another novel I wrote. I had this wonderfully compelling first vision. However, after writing two drafts of the novel that didn’t work, I realized my vision scene was part of the problem. It set the tone for the main characters’ relationship, but it took place a year before the rest of the story. When I very reluctantly gave it up as something I’d know about but it wouldn’t make it into the novel, the third draft fell into place. Moral of that story: you can only try to make something work for so long before you have to drag your writing down to the cellar and shove it into a shallow grave with all your other darlings. I’m not going to open The Night Creature with the train station scene I mentioned in part I and I’m not sure it will make it into the novel at all, which means I have to come up with a different way to start my story.

The common advice writers hear is to start a story in medias res (In the middle of affairs). The definition of in medias res is that an important catalyst for the plot has already taken place before the story opens, a scene that will often be shown in flashbacks. Some writers take it to mean they should open the work in the middle of an action sequence. While opening your story with your main character busting a chair over someone’s head is action, without context a fight means nothing to readers. If you add context, the action is broken up by a lot of back story that muddles the scene and kills the forward momentum of the fight. Not a good choice. But going the opposite direction is also a problem.

Recently, I beta read a friend’s fantasy novel. It was good once I got into it, but it took a long time to finish the first chapter because he used what I call the Sound of Music opening. If you’ve seen the movie The Sound of Music, you probably don’t remember the very long opening sequence that flies you over the alps forever, swings toward Salzburg (are we there yet?) picks an alpine meadow to focus on (are we there yet?) slowly brings your eye down to a young woman sauntering through the lush grass, gets closer and closer until you can see her face, then she twirls, opens her mouth, and begins to sing. You probably only remember the twirl and the singing. And do you know why? Because it’s action. It’s interesting. That's the place where the networks tend to begin the movie broadcast because they don’t want you to flip channels after two minutes of snowcapped peaks. Similarly, my friend’s opening chapter started with the long shot view of the mountains, slowly bringing the focus down to a little village as it talked about the weather, the economy, the political structure of the area and the geography. That kind of opening sequence is bound to lose readers. The TV networks figured this out, so should writers. My friend fixed that in his rewrite and it made a huge difference. 

Instead of jumping into action without context or using a Sound of Music style opening, a better idea is to show the main character doing something (action rather than simply sitting around thinking) that will bring him/her/hir to the inciting incident rather quickly.

The inciting incident is what causes the story to happen. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the inciting incident is when the Emperor orders the Duke to take over management of the planet commonly known as Dune. You never see that scene. That happens before the opening chapter, a good example of in medias res. As the story opens, you see the Duke’s household in the midst of preparations to leave their home planet for Dune. From word one, the story is in forward motion. Another good technique is to ease the reader into the setting and characters by starting a short time before the inciting incident occurs. Margaret Mitchell’s approach for Gone With the Wind gave the reader a chapter or two of normal life on the plantation, but still with forward momentum leading to the two inciting incidents-- Ashley announcing his engagement to his cousin Melanie (effectively dumping Scarlett), and news reaching the party that the war has been declared.

In my novel The Night Creature, I open the story at a party. The female and male lead characters see each other across the room. She wants to hook up with him and he wants her, but they remain on opposite ends of the room no matter where they move in the crowd. They’re chasing and evading each other simultaneously. This foreshadows the plot. It’s also in medias res because you find out later that he’s been pursuing her for a while and she’s been purposefully evasive. By the end of the evening, she lets him catch her. During sex, he bites her. This is the inciting incident. The bite transfers their roles. Now she pursues him and he runs away. As they find themselves trapped in a game without end, they struggle with all-consuming desire, obsession, and madness. I did mention that this story is gothic horror, didn’t I?

The opening of a novel doesn’t just introduce the character and their world. It should also give the reader a taste of what’s at stake for the main character. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley, to flirt and be admired, and to get her way. She wants life to continue as it has up until now for her, only better. In Dune, the Duke Atreides, his consort Jessica, and heir Paul want to survive the political intrigues of the Emperor and eventually get off Dune with their fortune, power, and lives intact. My characters want the game to end. Yeah. Not going to happen. But that’s not the point. Show what your character wants, briefly. Then yank it from their grasp with the inciting incident. That’s where your story starts. Every book is different, so you could get to the inciting incident within a thousand words or it could take you a couple chapters, but get to it as soon as possible.

For an erotic novel, you might go with a sexual the inciting incident. Desire, lust, attraction, a gang bang, whatever is right for your story should be the catalyst to get the story moving. Sometimes the inciting incident is a situation that makes sexual discovery, seduction, submission, etc. possible. However, be wary of literary tropes. This is an excellent article describing them: I review erotica and have judged both erotica and erotic romance for contests, and I’ve seen a few tropes so many times that, as this article suggests, they make me want to hurl a book across the room. It’s a good thing I like my Kindle too much to fling it. So please, do not make the inciting incident be a bad break up. Don’t have your heroine take a bubble bath as she thinks (what did I say about sitting around thinking?) about making a radical change in her life. Don’t have her buy a fabulous house out in the middle of nowhere with only a mysterious Byronic hero alpha male for a neighbor. Just. Don’t. For me. Please.

How do you decide where to start? Do you go with your first vision? Is starting the novel the hardest part for you?

Next time, I’ll talk about why maybe I should learn to outline (but it won’t happen) and what to do when you feel like you’re up to your knees in muck that’s sucking you down into a writerly funk and you don’t think you can slog through it to the next chapter.


  1. An excellent analysis of a strong opening for a novel. Tastes have certainly changed over the centuries. A nineteenth-century novelist could get away with leisurely scene painting, but contemporary tastes definitely require we grab the reader and never let go. My "decision" as to where to start goes through several phases--as you also suggest. There's an intuitive sense of where to start the story, which often works for a short story. A longer week needs both inspiration and analysis. Although for my novel, I borrowed the structure from a Japanese classic, so I have another author to thank--or blame--for the way my story unfolds!

  2. Donna - I was sucked into your novel right away, so it worked!

  3. Great analysis, Kathleen!

    I particularly like the notion that the initial scene should in some sense encapsulate or foreshadow the major conflict in the book. I never really thought about this, but occasionally I seem to have done this by instinct.

    QUARANTINE starts with the prison guard Rafe watching a prisoner in the gay quarantine camp masturbate (illegally) on the video surveillance cameras. Rafe thinks he's straight, but he's turned on. At the end of the scene it becomes clear that the prisoner KNOWS he's being watched, that in some sense this is a set-up. Rafe is disgusted with himself but still drawn to the prisoner.

    This is the core of the interaction between these two characters. Dylan is a brilliant manipulator desperate for freedom. Rafe is homophobic and terrified of his own desires. The two sets of motivations play themselves out over the course of the book, even as the two begin to genuinely care for one another (it's romance ;^) ). The same conflict reappears, threatening to derail their relationship.

    (I can't wait to read The Night Creature...!)

  4. Lisabet - Foreshadowing the plot is only one way of starting. I wonder how many writers do it without consciously thinking of it.

    When I get a version of Night Creatures I like, I'll get you to beta it.


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