Starting Your Story With A Spark

The first major point of your novel is what I think of as the Story Spark.

It gets the ball rolling.

Your protagonist is going along with normal life as a waitress, a student, a Southern Belle and, bam, something changes.

This also is known as the Inciting Incident.

It could happen on your first page or somewhere in the first few chapters. It needs to happen early, though, because it starts the real story.

What comes before is background or backstory, a glimpse into the character’s normal life and what happened before this conflict occurred or came to a head.

In a movie, the Story Spark typically occurs within the first ten minutes. In a book, it’s often in the first chapter.

The classic example is a murder mystery, where we see a dead body on the first page or at end of the first chapter. As we’ll see, the scene that contains the Story Spark doesn’t need to include the protagonist, though it quite often does. Regardless, without the Spark, there’s no story, and no conflict for our protagonist.

Examples — And Spoilers — Of The Story Spark

WarningThe rest of this article includes spoilers from The Terminator (the first film), Gone With The Wind, and my own first novel The Awakening.

In The Terminator, Sarah Connor in the Climax will fight the Terminator to the death.

The Story Spark occurs in two of the first scenes of the film, when two naked men, one of whom is actually the cyborg we’ll come to know as the Terminator, appear on earth amid lightning. This is important because when we switch to our hero, Sarah, happily cruising on her motor scooter on a sunny California day, we already know there’s conflict on the way.

My very old copy of Gone With The Wind

In Gone With The Wind, though Scarlett is unaware of either at the beginning of the book, the main story will be about her relationship with Rhett Butler and, on a grander scale, about her surviving the Civil War and the death of the pre-war Southern way of life.

The Story Spark occurs when Rhett pops up off the couch, having heard Scarlett’s unladylike declaration of love for Ashley Wilkes, and Ashley’s rejection of her. Rhett laughs, Scarlett throws a vase, and there you have it. The Story Spark for the more sweeping story also occurs at this time. As Rhett and Scarlett spar, the Civil War is declared. Moments later, a blushing beau asks Scarlett to marry him before he goes off to fight.

In The Awakening, the Story Spark occurs on the first page, which is not unusual with a thriller or mystery (see above: dead body on page 1).

Tara’s doctor tells her she’s pregnant, despite that she’s never had sexual intercourse. Her goal when we start the book is to become a doctor. Her plan is to finish college and be admitted to medical school before marrying her boyfriend, having sex, and risking pregnancy. The very moment we see her, in the first paragraph of the novel, she’s encountering the major obstacle:

Tara folded and unfolded the pink referral slip. Her fingers made sweat marks on the paper. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t had sex.”

Right off the bat, Tara must deal with the actual turn her life has taken and struggle to explain it to everyone else in her life. That includes her boyfriend, who knows he can’t be the father.

The Tension Before The Spark
  • Gone With The Wind 

In Gone With The Wind, unlike in The Terminator, there are quite a few scenes before the Story Spark.

How does Margaret Mitchell keep readers engaged until then?

Two ways:

(1) As we talked about in Chapter One, conflict occurs on the very first page—the conflict between Scarlett’s nature and the rules imposed upon women in her society.

This actually foreshadows both the major story arcs in the book. We see it again when Mammy insists Scarlett eat before the Wilkes’ barbecue (where she’ll eventually be rejected by Ashley and meet Rhett), so that she’ll eat only tiny morsels there and appear ladylike. Mammy achieves this by playing on what Scarlett wants most—Ashley Wilkes—implying that Ashley prefers dainty, birdlike women.

Seeds are also sown about the Civil War in the very first scene.

Mitchell doesn’t do that by simply telling us war is on the horizon or by giving us a history lesson. Instead, as she weaves in information and descriptions, she frames the prospect of war in a very personal way for our protagonist. Scarlett is talking to twin brothers who both carry a torch for her. She wants to hear about them being thrown out of school (yet another conflict), and they want to talk about war, a subject that bores her. She becomes impatient and insists there won’t be any war.

(2) In that very first scene, Scarlett becomes upset, but hides it, when the twins tell her Ashley is getting engaged to his cousin Melanie. This is yet another conflict that will feed into the larger story arcs.

  • The Awakening
Book 1 in The Awakening Series

In contrast, Tara Spencer’s ordinary, pre-pregnancy life in The Awakening and her goal of becoming a doctor are conveyed not by pages of description or scenes before the Story Spark, but through a debate with her doctor.

The two debate both why Tara can’t be pregnant and how it could possibly have happened. This maintains tension as the reader learns about Tara.

Once again, conflict drives the scene and keeps the reader engaged.

If instead I started with a long description of Tara’s typical day at college or pages of narrative about how she’s the oldest of four and loves her brothers and sisters like crazy, or how hard she works at her job, most readers would stop reading.

  • The Terminator

In The Terminator, tension is maintained a different way.

In the very beginning, there’s a brief voiceover about the machines taking over the world, with short scenes of a grim future with machines and cyborgs hunting humans—emphasis on brief and short. Nothing will kill reader (or viewer) interest faster than a long download of information about the world of the story.

In some fantasy novels, readers have a lot of patience for world building, as that’s part of what fans love about the genre. Even there, however, if you’re a new author it’s best to hook your reader early with compelling personal conflict.

After the voiceover, some conflict occurs in Sarah’s day-to-day life, such as mixing up orders from customers, a child putting a scoop of ice cream in her uniform pocket, and a call from her roommate’s boyfriend.

Some of it is played for humor, as when the boyfriend starts sex talk with Sarah, stammers in embarrassment when she pretends to be shocked and not know who it is, then starts the very same lines when the roommate takes the phone.

But mostly tension and viewer interest is maintained by the scenes that are intercut with Sarah’s mundane troubles.

We see the Terminator pull the list of Sarah Connors from the phone book and murder one of them. We also see Kyle Reese flee from the police, steal clothes and weapons, and start hunting for Sarah. The first time through, we don’t know if he’s on her side or is another bad guy after her, which adds another story question for which the viewer wants an answer.

Finding The Spark For Your Novel

Now to your novel. Think about your protagonist’s main goal, the one that will take the entire novel to reach (or clearly fail to reach).

When is the first time something significant happens that blocks that goal and starts the story?

Does your protagonist encounter this obstacle on page one? If not, why not?

Even if you don’t plan to do it, brainstorm some ways you could rearrange your plot to get that obstacle onto page one.

If you’re picturing your Story Spark occurring a bit later, what else does your protagonist want on the first page, and what stands in the way? (This creates the conflict you need to keep reader attention until the Story Spark occurs.)

Odds are in your first draft, you’ll start too early, that is, you’ll start too long before the Story Spark.

Don’t worry about it.

After you finish the draft and let it sit for a while, it’ll be easier to see which part isn’t necessary and where the story really becomes compelling.

Good luck starting your novel!

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on the Story Spark and the other key turning points when starting your novel, check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide to Plotting and Writing Your Novel.

Figuring Out Your Protagonist’s Goal

Whether readers care about a protagonist almost always rests upon whether they care about that character’s goal.

Your protagonist must have a goal that’s vital to her (or him) and hard to reach so she’ll need to spend the entire novel struggling to achieve it.

Ask yourself: Where does your protagonist desperately want or need to be by the end of the novel?

Not only must your protagonist have a goal, she needs strong reasons for wanting or needing to achieve it. Otherwise the story will fall flat.

In short, the protagonist must care.

Heightening The Protagonist’s Motivation

As an example, let’s start with a goal with low stakes that many readers might not identify with.

If my main character’s goal is to get into a summer internship program in Boston at an international company, but she’d be equally happy to live with her parents all summer and work with her friends as a lifeguard at the local pool, the story won’t be compelling.

If she doesn’t care, neither will the reader.

On the other hand, imagine she has the same goal but the following are also true:

  • her student loans are coming due
  • after thirty interviews she hasn’t gotten a single job offer
  • she’s always wanted to live in Boston
  • the internship has a good chance of leading to full-time employment

Now we have a goal she (and the reader) will care about.

If you want to up the stakes, let’s say:

  • her parents both got laid off from their jobs last year
  • they moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a rural area
  • she’s sleeping on the couch and living far from any urban area with the types of jobs that she trained for
  • she can only afford plane tickets to this one last interview

Now we really have a conflict and so a story.

Active v. Passive

To be engaging, your protagonist must strive for her goal.

That doesn’t mean you need a superhero for a main character. In fact, as I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure, in a battle with the antagonist, your protagonist generally should be the underdog.

It does mean your protagonist must do as much as she or he possibly can to move forward within the limits of the world and the character you’ve created.

Goals And The Terminator

WARNING – Spoilers for the first Terminator film below!

In the first half of The Terminator, from an action hero perspective, Sarah Connor is not particularly active. She doesn’t know how to fight or have any special skills or knowledge.

But for who she is and where she is in life, she does everything she can.

When she’s out at a bar and grill and sees a television news report that two women named Sarah Connor have been murdered, she immediately tries to call the police. The payphone, the only option in the 80s for calling when you’re away from home, is broken.

She’s made a big deal about seeing the news report, which might make it obvious she’s worried. So Sarah leaves the bar and grill, blending with a crowd and staying alert.

When she realizes someone is following her, she enters a nightclub, paying a cover charge just to get in and use the payphone. She persists in trying to reach the correct person at the police station despite being transferred all over. She follows the instructions she gets from the police, then follows the instructions of a stranger, Kyle Reese, when he’s able to fend off the Terminator. She also listens to Reese’s explanation despite how crazy it sounds.

In other words, Sarah Connor is the opposite of the idiot in the horror movie who is alone in a strange house at night, hears noises coming from the attic, and heads right up the stairs to have her throat slit.

Writer Heal Thyself

Ironically, though most of the above advice–including The Terminator analysis–came from my own book on story structure, I had trouble in my latest novel with the protagonist’s goal and motivation.

In my early drafts of The Worried Man, a mystery that will be out May 1, 2018, my main character found her boyfriend’s dead body in his apartment. The police suspected suicide or accidental overdose. She and the boyfriend’s son rejected the thought that either had happened, and the protagonist set out to uncover the truth.

These aspects of the book haven’t changed.

But in the early drafts she had met the man a few months before and dated him, but they hadn’t spent much time together. She didn’t meet the son until after the boyfriend died.

While she had a family history that made her identify with the son, it wasn’t clear what that history was.

The feedback from agents I ran the story past and the story editor I worked with was the same:

The main character didn’t have a strong enough reason to investigate the death or to doubt that the police detectives in her city (Chicago) could do a good job.

In the current version, I made these changes:

  • the protagonist and the boyfriend are about to move in together
  • she finds his dead body the night before the move
  • she has a close relationship with the son and just finished renovating her condo to create a sleeping loft for him
  • her mother emotionally abandoned her as a child, and she’s determined the son won’t grow up believing his father did anything that contributed to his own death and left the son without him
  • police investigated her parents for a crime they didn’t commit and never uncovered the truth, so she doesn’t trust the police to do their jobs or to be fair

My first reader of the final version had no idea of the feedback I’d gotten about the lack of motivation. He also didn’t know what changes I’d made in response.

I was very happy–and vastly relieved–when his first comment was how much he identified with the main character and how he completely got why she took the investigation into her own hands.

For the next book in the series, I hope I’ll remember what I learned!

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’re looking for articles about your goals as a writer or marketer/publisher, try Set A Single Goal (And Stop Managing Your Time) or Hitting Publish: Why Your First Goal Isn’t To Sell Books.


Beats Explained

If you read comments in online writing groups, listen to podcasts, or read articles or blogs on the writing process, you’ve likely heard authors talk about beats.

A writer might say of a novel she’s planning, “I’ve written out the beats.” An author giving advice might mention the importance of beats.

If you’re not quite certain what a “beat” includes, you’re not alone. Having written multiple novels plus a book on story structure, it’s embarrassing to admit I didn’t really understand this word everyone was throwing around. Outlines, plot points, scenes, yes. “Beats,” no.

Happily, in this episode of How Story Works, author and story expert Lani Diane Rich explains beats.

First, she talks about a narrative unit, which is a series of events that has meaning. So a beat, a scene, and a story are all narrative units. Second, a beat is the smallest narrative unit. So scenes are made up of beats. Stories are made up of scenes.

Lani also illustrates exactly what a beat is and what it does, which is what I found most helpful. Using a scene from a work in progress, she pauses after every beat to discuss why it’s a beat and what it accomplishes or shows.

I hope this helps you plan or revise your own scenes and stories.

Until Sunday–


L.M. Lilly