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When you first start a story, and you’re introducing your characters, it can be easy to feel stalled. There will be lots of world to explore and lots of people to meet, so you may find you have lots to write about, but nothing’s actually happening.

People living their ordinary lives isn’t the point of your story. Even stories about day to day life, such as soap operas, have plot lines that begin, build, and climax. Ordinary life is saved for documentaries, but you’re writing a story. A story needs a plot.

So, how do you take characters that you know and love, and actually send them on a story?

What Does Your Protagonist Want?

The reason you’re jumping into your Protagonist’s life at this point is because they want something. The point of your story is to follow them on a journey. There’s something they don’t have, they want it, and they go in pursuit of it. The story tracks the Antagonist blocking their efforts to get it, and building to a final climactic moment where either Protagonist or Antagonist wins.

Before you start telling your story, work out what it is your Protagonist wants. Either something is missing in their life that they want to rectify, or something external is happening that they want to stop.

For instance, your Protagonist might want to find love. Their story is her journey to either finding her person, or to accepting life without a partner. Alternatively, something external such as aliens invading the planet is happening, and your Protagonist wants to stop them. For this, she’d be motivated to stay alive, protect the people around her, and save the world.

In all cases, your Protagonist wants something, and is motivated at the beginning of your story to get it.

Start A Story With The Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident is the moment that triggers your story to start. Prior to your story starting your Protagonist is not actively in pursuit of their goal, they’re just living.

So, if your Protagonist is motivated to find love, you need to give her something that makes that important enough to go after. Perhaps her ex is getting married and she needs a date to his wedding. If you’re writing YA, prom could be coming and she doesn’t want to go alone. But something happens that changes her vague need to fall in love into something she actively seeks to make happen.

For an external story conflict, such as aliens invading, the Inciting Incident is pretty clear. It’s the moment the aliens invade. However, I would recommend giving your Protagonist something they actively want that the aliens impact. Perhaps she is actively motivated to protect people she loves, or she’s involved in work to protect the planet. Either way, the aliens invading challenge her story goal and that is why she particularly steps up to the challenge of stopping them.

The Antagonist

The Antagonist of your story is equally important to your Protagonist. Without an Antagonist stopping them from getting what they want, there would be no story. If your Protagonist wants to get a date, with no Antagonist, she’d ask someone out and off they’d go. The story would be over. Your Antagonist is what keeps the story active.

At the Inciting Incident, your Antagonist becomes motivated just like your Protagonist. Their role throughout your story is to either try and stop your Progagonist achieving their goal. Either they same thing, and they can’t both have it, or they want to stop your Protagonist for their own reasons.

If your Protagonist wants a date to prom, the Antagonist could want to go with the same person. Or it could be her parent who wants her to stay at home and says she’s too young to date. Either way, somebody is actively blocking her attempts to get what she want.

For aliens invading, the Antagonist is likely the aliens who want to be taking over. Alternatively, it’s somebody on Earth who’s working with the aliens and is working to stop your Protagonist from saving the world. Perhaps masquerading as a friend or colleague to later be revealed as a traitor.

Events Prior To When You Start A Story

You’re not just chronicling meaningless moments in your characters lives so the time prior to the inciting incident is very story relevant. As well as establishing the world your story is set in, and who your Protagonist is, you show what matters to them. Show what they’re frustrated with or what they’re worried about.

For the Protagonist looking for love, show her lonely and craving company or an emotional connection. For the external invasion, show your Protagonist worrying about the safety of her people or her world.

Use this time prior to the Inciting Incident to demonstrate to your audience what matters and why. When the story begins they will care enough to stick with it. They want to find out if the story ends well for the Protagonist, and they want what she wants.

When Should Your Story Start?

For a book, your Inciting Incident should come by the end of Chapter One. For a film, it should come in the first ten pages.

The time prior to that moment will feel dull and stalled if you spend too long. However, you can put the Inciting Incident as early as you want and get to know who the characters are and why their story matters whilst they’re already in action and pursuing their goals.

Your characters will stay motivated and in pursuit of their goals at all moments until the climax. Once the climax happens and the conflict is resolved, your story is complete.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!

Start A Story, JJ Barnes Writing Advice
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JJBarnes

I'm author, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. I've always been passionate about stories, both on the page and on the screen, and now I'm lucky enough that I've been able to turn that passion into a career.

Myfirst novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit was the first release from Siren stories and launched the Siren Stories Universe (the SSU). Now there are multiple stories, on page and screen, all connected and exploring the world I first began to develop all those years ago. Find all my books here.

Hollowhood, the first independent film from myself and my writing partner, Jonathan McKinney, is currently in post-production. Making my own film has been an incredible experience and only affirmed my love of all things to do with film. From the camera to the costumes, I will always love everything about being on set.

As well as releasing my own stories, I'm hoping to spread love and passion for the art of story telling to others, by guiding you through different aspect of writing. I do a series of Writing Advice videos for adults, and a Creative Writing For Kids series, both on YouTube. I'm also releasing regular Writing Advice blog posts explaining different writing techniques and advice for how to get the most out of your writing experience.

Other than writing, my life is mostly spent with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, our three children, Rose, Ezekiel and Buffy, and our extremely foolish Springer Spaniel, Molly.

I love reading books, watching TV, and falling asleep during movies. When Jon comes to bed he usually finds me face down with my face on a book, or hiding under the duvet waiting for him to protect me because I've got myself in a dither reading a ghost story.

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2 Comments

  1. This was a really helpful article ~ thank you!

    I have started my first every novel/MS/WIP {so many tags}, and I am about 30K in and realise that my 1st chapter {which I’ve called a prologue} is completely wrong. It’s about the wrong person/people, it doesn’t do what a first chapters’ intended for (to create a promise to the reader…?) and whilst I have stumbled upon a few great resources in the past 48hrs, the learning curve is STEEP with this creative outlet! Thank you for making it concise, precise and understandable. I am *actually* looking forward to rewriting this from the beginning (I will keep pushing on; as they say: the 1st draft has one job ~ to exist!), once I have a skeletal outline/1st draft…. “zero draft?” done.

    Thanks. I will definitely be looking for more of your inspiring content.

    1. That’s so good that you’re feeling happy about getting into it!!! I’m SO glad I’ve been able to help 🙂

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