Even after a plot is outlined, a writer has many choices to make about what readers should know. Should the opening seek to inform readers or create intriguing mysteries? The answer you choose will drastically change how your story is received.
In the previous article in this series, we covered simplifying your story to ensure you don’t have more critical information than you can realistically communicate. Now, it’s time to identify what information you should give the audience. This step is best done after you’ve completed a high-level outline or identified the general direction for your plot but before you’ve planned individual scenes.
We can separate information needs into two categories:
- Engagement information, which entertains the audience and draws them into the story
- Logistical information, which keeps them from getting confused and gives them a smooth experience
I always start with engagement. After I have an engagement plan, I fill in logistical necessities. Sometimes this results in a strategy that’s ambitious, information-wise. But I think it’s better to have engaging scenes that you might have to adjust than weak ones that you’ll struggle to revive.
To find engagement information, we can apply the ANTS model to the story.
Novelty: What’s Fresh and Fascinating
In a best-case scenario, some of your information is novel and will add entertainment just by being shown to your audience. If you have the right premise, it’s even possible for novelty to carry one or more scenes on its own.
For instance, the 2022 movie Spirited adds novelty to the classic A Christmas Carol by featuring a whole work department of ghosts that spend all year planning one person’s redemption. The first scenes of the movie show these ghosts working, entertaining viewers while filling in logistical information.
Novel story elements work best when they are present in a scene, coloring all the little details. For instance, it wouldn’t be effective if viewers in Spirited were just told that this department existed, rather than seeing it in action. However, if the Ghost of Christmas Past acted more like an employee than a traditional spirit, that would still provide some novelty without showing the whole department.
In a best-case scenario, you can depict novel elements while the plot is unfolding. However, in cases such as Spirited, the novel premise depends on lots of logistics, which could crowd out anything else. Including novel elements may also take your opening scene farther from where the plot is. In some cases, you’ll have to choose whether to introduce novel story elements or focus on booting up your plot.
Unless you have a premise optimized for novelty, I don’t recommend prioritizing novelty over tension. Instead, I would list novel information as a “nice to have.” That means it could go in an early scene that makes it especially easy to cover or it could appear a little later, once the information load isn’t already pushed to the limit.
I advise general caution, because it’s difficult for us to judge what’s novel for other people. If we’ve created a unique magic system that we love, we might think showing it off would make a great opening, but it probably won’t. Asking other people for an opinion can help, but it’s simply safer not to sacrifice other aspects of the story to focus on something that may or may not be novel enough.
In the event you decide to take a risk and focus on novelty in your opening, make sure you’re still building attachment.
Attachment: Creating Emotional Investment
Building attachment is an important investment that will keep paying off as the story unfolds. Address it early, because tension is less effective without it.
Let’s go over what attachment information you might need.
- You need to get your audience attached to your main character ASAP. What information does the audience need to view the main character as sympathetic, selfless, and novel? This might involve current suffering, a tragic backstory, a good deed, or a situation that brings out a character’s unique traits.
- Do you have other characters the audience should get attached to? If so, when does that attachment need to happen? For most secondary protagonists, you can let it build slowly. However, if you switch to another viewpoint protagonist that isn’t interacting with your main character, you’ll need it ASAP. If you have a minor antagonist that will switch sides, start building attachment before they make the switch.
- Throughout the story, consider what information the audience needs to know to understand the main character’s emotions or motivation. If they’re chasing down a villain to get revenge, what are they getting revenge for? If they’re avoiding certain places or people, why is that? Without knowing what’s behind their choices, the audience can’t feel the main character’s grief or anger with them, and you’ll lose emotional power.
- Finally, what attachment is required to care about the story’s problems? If a character is put in peril, the audience should like that character. If a town is threatened, you might want to build attachment to the town. For a relationship arc, you want the audience rooting for the relationship. All of this requires giving the audience a reason – whether shown or told – to care about it. Otherwise, the story’s tension could be lacking.
Tension: Getting Your Hooks In
Tension has specific requirements that you can check off. We’ve already covered the attachment requirement, so let’s look at the others.
- What is the problem? This is obvious, but it’s still a good idea to think it through. What are the bare basics of the problem you have to communicate? You’ll want to loop back on this when you consider logistical information, because problems can require a lot of context to understand.
- What are the stakes? The problem won’t generate much tension unless the audience has some idea of what the possible consequences could be if the problem isn’t addressed. In some cases, you need to spell out those consequences and why they are bad.
- Why will it be difficult to solve? What information will keep the problem from looking like a cakewalk? Conversely, do you need to provide some hope it can be solved at all?
- How is it urgent? Are bad things happening that the protagonist needs to stop ASAP? Is the problem getting worse and worse? Is a point of no return rapidly approaching?
Most opening scenes don’t have to be life and death, but you want some level of tension in almost all cases. If you’re having trouble introducing large problems immediately, try including a smaller conflict while foreshadowing a bigger, looming threat. That gives you time to develop your big plot problems further as you continue.
Satisfaction: Delivering a Payoff
Thankfully, this isn’t usually important for an opening, as it involves the conclusion of plot arcs. However, it matters a great deal throughout the story, and it’s one of the primary reasons foreshadowing is needed.
- Do you want your protagonist to piece together a bunch of clues just in time to save the day? What are those clues, and what should readers know about them?
- Do you have a big twist like a betrayal that needs to feel plausible? Think through what information might make it plausible without giving too much away.
- Do you want the protagonist to take actions that won’t matter until much later? What should they do, and how will you remind the audience about it later?
Try to figure out all of the clues or karmic actions you need to insert ahead. Thankfully, the timing of this information is usually flexible. Look for scenes that aren’t already introducing lots of story elements.
Once you’ve identified the most important engagement information you need, especially in your opening, you can work backward to find logistical information. What must you tell the audience to understand all the stuff that’s actually entertaining? Are there any questions that could distract them?
For instance, in the opening of Elantris, Prince Raoden undergoes a magical transformation, which not only dooms him to a terrible fate but also associates him with a cursed and mostly abandoned city. The association with the city is important, because in scene two, Prince Raoden is thrown into the city to rot. This is the book’s big opening hook, so readers need to understand those basics right away.
While providing enough context is important, it’s easy to go too far with logistical information. It’s not entertainment; it’s a burden. So you want to do as little as you can get away with, especially during the story’s opening. Can you skip the details? Can you give a rough idea and get more precise later?
Going back to Elantris, the magical transformation is specifically called the Shaod, but knowing that isn’t necessary. The cursed city used to be blessed until it fell from grace 10 years ago, but readers could learn that later.
On the other hand, readers should probably know right off that this transformation is a well-known phenomenon that strikes the rare person at random. Otherwise, they could get distracted asking how and why Raoden suddenly transformed. They might even think it’s a mystery for Raoden to solve. That can lead to disappointment when it turns out the mystery they perceived has a simple answer instead of a big payoff.
In addition to information that supports whatever engagement strategy you have, there are a few details that every story has to cover in the opening. This includes basic information about the main character and setting. Because these items are pretty consistent from story to story, you don’t need to plan them ahead. However, they’ll come up when it’s finally time to write your first draft. See Planning Your Opening Passages for more.
Case Study: The Kiss of Deception
The opening for The Kiss of Deception, the first book of The Remnant Chronicles, makes an interesting case study. It has no big exposition dumps, and the information that’s missing has clearly been concealed intentionally. The opening’s problems happened earlier in the process, when author Mary E. Pearson chose an information strategy that prioritized empty buzzwords over emotional investment.
Let’s start by reviewing the opening plot events. Protagonist Lia is a princess – called a First Daughter – who’s been put in an arranged marriage. On her wedding day, she runs away to escape this marriage. While these events shouldn’t change, that still leaves many judgment calls. The opening could start a little earlier or later, and scenes could be rearranged to show different parts of the wedding preparations or escape.
Currently, Pearson uses a meta mystery to boost her opening. A meta mystery happens when the audience is trying to figure out things that the main character already knows. It’s natural for this to occur in the opening paragraphs, before the storyteller has the chance to explain everything. However, writers frequently keep these meta mysteries going long past that. That’s not a great strategy. While a meta mystery can evoke curiosity, it’s bad for attachment and tension, which are both more powerful motivators than curiosity.
In this case, readers know Lia is undergoing some kind of ritual, but they don’t know what for quite a while. Pearson tries to make it tense by describing dull knives scraping Lia’s skin, but it turns out that’s just some kind of henna. Readers learn Lia is running off on her wedding when she actually does it, giving them no time to feel tension over whether her escape succeeds. Meta reveals like these are easy to pull off, but they’re not very impactful.
Let’s imagine this opening with attachment and tension. What do we need to get attached to Lia? We can start with sympathy. As it turns out, Lia hasn’t inherited a magic power that First Daughters are supposed to get. That’s pretty sympathetic. Pearson also tries to build sympathy for Lia because she doesn’t want to get married, but it isn’t very compelling. Lia doesn’t have any particular reason to avoid it, and she’s part of a culture where she would have expected the marriage since childhood.
To boost both of these sources of sympathy, we might add more specific and tangible hardships to Lia’s situation. What is her magic supposed to do? Maybe the First Daughter has an important job she can’t complete, making her feel useless. For the marriage, perhaps she has to leave behind someone important in her life or abandon schooling that was really important to her. She might love gardening, but her new family won’t allow her to toil in the dirt.
For tension, it turns out that Lia’s new family thinks she has the First Daughter’s power. Pearson downplays this, but it’s just what the plot needed. Lia could be in mortal danger once she joins a family who feels cheated by the marriage. If she dies, her husband could marry someone else. In turn, this can provide some stakes for her escape attempt.
So far, the information we want ASAP is:
- Lia is a First Daughter who lacks the magic she is supposed to have, plus any specifics that build more sympathy regarding her lack of magic.
- It’s Lia’s wedding day, and her marriage was arranged. If possible, include specifics that make this marriage create more sympathy for her.
- Lia’s future husband and in-laws were not informed about her missing magic. This will likely turn them against her, perhaps fatally so.
Then, the story should have a conflict, so it’s time to add the escape. For that, let’s refer to the tension checklist. Since it’s her wedding day, urgency is already taken care of, but we have two more things to consider.
- What is her escape plan, and why will it be difficult to pull off?
- What consequence will she face if she is caught trying to escape? Something more than having to get married after all will raise the tension higher.
That’s the engagement information the story could use in the beginning. I might also try to work in some selflessness or novelty for Lia, depending on how I’d planned to make her character likable.
What about logistical information? Let’s look at questions that could distract or confuse readers if they aren’t answered.
- What is a First Daughter? That’s pretty descriptive, fortunately, but clarifying what important figure she is the daughter of will help avoid confusion.
- How is it that First Daughters have unique magic? In this case, it runs in noble family lines, mother to daughter. If we have room for it, we could tell readers that Lia’s mother had the power, but lost it for mysterious reasons. That’s a nice little hook that will boost engagement.
- Why does Lia have to get married? Her father wants to use the marriage to build an important political alliance.
- Why weren’t her future in-laws told about her missing magic? We could say it’s because her marriage prospects would be worse and her father is willing to gamble with her life for the chance of a better alliance.
The escape will probably require significantly more logistical information. Readers need to understand Lia’s plan and any context the plan depends on. That could require describing the layout of the cathedral where she’s getting married, the sequences of wedding-related events for the day, or all the people who will be involved.
We want readers to be able to follow Lia’s escape attempt moment by moment, with enough knowledge to judge if she’s succeeding or failing and what’s likely to happen as a result. For instance, if she sneaks out of the cathedral too late, that could mean her escape coach won’t be there. If she’s seen in the wrong room, someone could report that to her parents, who will send the guards after her.
While this is a lot of information to introduce into the opening of The Kiss of Deception, it’s definitely doable. However, we’d need enough scenes to allow us to trickle this information in instead of dumping it all at once.
In the next articles of this series, I’ll show you how to design scenes to make covering all the right details easier.
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