For a Successful Opening, Establish Your Protagonist

Here’s a post from Jane Friedman’s blog: The Secret Ingredient of Successful Openings

It turns out that this post is about the importance of establishing your protagonist right off the bat:

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.

In other words, the author of this post feels that writers too often ignore the first three points to focus on the last couple. I will add, the post now goes into the protagonist’s “internal wound” — Some problem on the inside that, by the end of the story, they’re going to overcome—or, perhaps, tragically fail to. That makes this post seem very much oriented toward Romance. Of course if there is any kind of character arc at all, then the protagonist is going to grow and change in some way and probably, yes, overcome some kind of internal issue. (If they’re going to fail, they’re a tragic hero and I’m not interested in that story.) I do like that this post adds, The exception to this rule is mysteries and thrillers—genres in which character arc isn’t a requirement. I think that’s mainly series mysteries. Probably thrillers more often have distinct character arc, though I agree, maybe not all the time.

[A]t the beginning of the story, the protagonist herself can’t see what her internal problem is—she doesn’t even know she has one. … 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:

— Misgivings about whatever is going on in the opening scene. Things like doubts about the marriage as she walks toward the altar.

— Someone else expresses misgivings. Stars in her eyes, but her best friend is murmuring doubtfully, “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

Self-generated trouble. And here, I have to immediately pause to say, Ugh, no, please don’t. Sounds like memoir or literary, and it definitely sounds like your protagonist is a jerk, incompetent, or both. That’s such a turnoff! You start the opening of your novel by having your protagonist do something self-defeating and I’m out of there. Watching someone screw up their life for three hundred pages? Absolutely not, even if they’re going to get it together eventually.

Okay, so, overall the idea that your protagonist might express internal tension in some manner during the opening is fine. Suggesting that you may want to hint at the character arc right from the beginning is fine. Pointing out that this can be part of making your protagonist compelling is fine. However, I feel compelled at this point to point to an example of a book that breaks all sorts of rules about how to handle openings.

Here, take a look at a tension-free opening:

“It isn’t a question of actually believing the teachings,” said Elsa, drilling two neat holes in the sand with the heels of her shoes. “It’s whether or not they believe in the authenticity of the manuscript, that’s all.”

“Gosh, you’d better hope that’s all,” said Harriet cheerfully. “It would be so tedious for you, wouldn’t it, to have your research interrupted every so often by cultists wanting to worship the thing you were studying? In my department, now, we don’t have such problems.”

“Good heavens, Harriet — you study money! All sorts of people worship that!”

“Oh, true. Have a grape while I consider a suitable riposte.” Harriet proffered the tin of green grapes that had been nestled on the blanket beside her.

They were seated in the shade of a large blue sun-umbrella — Harriet’s property, like the blanket and the grapes and the vacuum flask of iced tea and the basket it had all been packed in. They had been there since noon; they had moved the umbrella several times to adjust their pool of shade, and the tea was nearly finished. The day had become blazingly hot, the sky arcing blue-white out over the lake, the water flashing in the sun. Because it was a weekday, the beach was not crowded. A few young people in bathing costumes ran or strolled, according to their preference; a few mothers lay in beach chairs while their children squatted over sandcastles by the shoreline. Elsa and Harriet sat under their umbrella with their books.

Harriet was the golden-haired, rosy, curvaceous one, radiant in a red bathing costume. Elsa was willowy and long-legged — or depending on her mood, tall and thin. She wore her much paler hair tightly plaited and pinned up. The black bathing costume she wore was the first one she had ever owned, this trip to the beach only her second since coming to Toronto four years ago. It was late August; the academic term of 1925-1926 would not start for another two weeks. It was a period of waiting, of planning and anticipation. The hot, heavy summer air seemed to Elsa to be telling her to go slowly, not to be so eager to rush onward to the new school year. It was an irresistible suggestion, but she chafed at it.

There we go: zero tension and, for a special bonus, plenty of telling-not-showing. Who recognizes this? This is From All False Doctrine by Alice Degan, which was one of my very favorite books from 2020. Here is my review. You may recall that I described it this way: “From All False Doctrine is sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology.” The author pulls off this story — including the opening — by throwing away all sorts of advice. Opening with low tension, opening with dialogue, opening with tons of telling-not-showing, but it’s all fine! It works great! I was hooked from the first pages of this quiet opening and, as I say, loved it and placed it as one of my top reads for the year.

What this opening does do is establish the protagonist(s). There are four in this story, with Elsa being primary, as is implied by giving her the first line. The opening chapter lays groundwork — subtly — for the central problem of the story, but basically this opening is all about establishing Elsa and the other three protagonists.

From this I will tentatively conclude that the fundamental necessity for the opening of a novel is to establish the protagonist and place the protagonist in the setting. Everything else — even tension, both internal and external — is distinctly secondary. This may be true even if the heart of the novel is the character arc of the protagonist, which is the case for From All False Doctrine. The beginning of Elsa’s character arc is in fact signaled in the first chapter, even in the first line, but it’s subtle. I don’t think the reader can see it until much later.

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9 thoughts on “For a Successful Opening, Establish Your Protagonist”

  1. Oh wow, I’ve reread this novel four times now and never caught that Elsa’s first two lines set out the entire plot and Elsa’s character arc. Masterfully done!

  2. Mary Beth, I know, right? I’ve read this book three times, but I only realized how these initial lines point to the heart of the plot and the heart of Elsa’s character arc when I typed them while writing this post.

  3. Counterpoint: a successful opening of a completely different sort:

    When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

    Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

    ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’

    Although it is a commonplace that LORD OF THE RINGS has too slow an opening, to my surprise these first paragraphs actually meet at least four of the five stated requirements pretty well — despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t get introduced at all for another couple of paragraphs, and has to wait pages and pages before being clarified as really being the protagonist.

    It’s only on rereading that one realizes the unnamed critics are far, far righter than they know, about something unnatural and trouble coming of it.

  4. I’ve been discarding samples right and left for vagueness – or confusion – in telling me where the character is. I don’t need dateline sort of information like England, 1350, Black Death… but I need to know something. A recent sample failure got tossed for confusion and worldbuilding – it was trying to convey an underwater civilization of mer-people, but the setting description conveyed normal human structures, and armor.

    So, I mentioned Minstrel by Durbin in a different comment thread yesterday. It starts:

    Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
    Lydia’s knuckles were bleached white in the moonlight. Her arms were already beginning to grow tired. She looked at the windowsill, which was mere inches above her tightly clenched fists , and knew that it was as out of reach as the sun. Her gaze traveled down the makeshift rope to where the base of the tower was lost in the rising fog. She swallowed and closed her eyes briefly. Then, with a whispered prayer, she forced her left hand open.
    he jerk as her body dropped was just short of too hard; the fingers of her right hand held. Her grip, at least, was strong. She wrapped her left hand around the rope and eased down as best she could with a jerk that was a little less intense. Her legs twisted involuntarily around the rope and she found that it lessened the strain. The desperate jerks became more of a controlled fall than climbing.
    Then, the bottom of the knotted bedding slipped around her legs and she found herself at the very bottom of the rope. Her feet swung freely as she panicked for a moment.

    We have a tower, night, and a reasonably level-headed young woman – doesn’t read like a child. That’s enough to go on with. Nothing sending mixed messages, like the mer-person one.

  5. One reason why A Diabolical Bargain was so much fun to write was that even though Nick is the protagonist, I thought for a long time that the only way to open with a hook was to open with Mortimer.

    I had a lot to learn to write it — it was my first finished novel — but one of the things I figured out in the end was how to open it with Nick.

  6. You’re right, this is another book where there’s amazing foreshadowing in the opening that the reader can’t possible pick up until re-reading. I never realized that. That’s a really neat thing for an author to accomplish.

  7. That’s a good beginning, Elaine, though it seems like a surprisingly brief climb given the distance I was imagining.

  8. I picked up “From All False Doctrine” on your recommendation. It is off to a promising start: written very much in the style of better fiction of the era, sharp dialog and so forth.
    But the genre! It is most unfortunately siloed in the genre of “Christian SFF”, which it literally is. But it is far closer to the form and content of Mary Catelli or Connie Willis than it is to the dog’s breakfast of “Christian SFF.” Catelli wisely chose a different genre.

  9. Pete Mack, I’ve never deliberately picked up anything listed as Christian SFF, but it does seem like the sort of category that might encourage authors to try much too hard, which is always guaranteed to fail. Not just in Christian SFF either. Any time the author is all about the message and subordinates the story to preaching the message, that’s almost certain to fail. I can think of several titles that are quite good and could be listed as Christian SFF, but I have no idea if they are actually listed that way.

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