My Writing Journey Story Structure Writing

Starting your novel – Your protagonist needs a problem

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I recently had a moment of enlightenment regarding this whole writing a book thing. The start of a story occurs at the start. Yes, you read that correctly. The start of a story occurs at the start. Many of you would argue that it is not much of an enlightenment. But, for me, it was a big leap in understanding story structure…

For a long time, I had thought that the story started at the inciting incident, that everything that came before this point (Gap A) was context and set-up and exposition. This is still true – The Inciting Incident does kickstart your story AND Gap A is all about context and set-up and exposition. The paradox arrives by way of realising that Gap A is also more than this – it is also the beginning of your story.

Lightbulb Moment


So this is our conundrum – both the Inciting Incident AND Gap A serve as the story’s beginning.

Some writers deal with this by having the Inciting Incident arrive in the first chapter of their story. I like a longer lead in time for my stories – to really ground the reader in the world and the status quo before launching into the story proper. If you’re like me and locate your Inciting Incident around the 10% mark, then you’ll also be faced with the challenge of crafting two story beginnings – because you can’t have your reader wading through 10% of your book before they can actually start reading the story.

So, how do you start a story twice? The answer lies in understanding that any novel is comprised of two stories – two core conflicts – two key problems – The Story’s Problem and the Protagonist’s Problem.

The Story’s Problem is the conflict that the Inciting Incident catalyses – it is usually external to the protagonist and critical for shaping their actions in response. It is the story that you see in movie trailers, it is the story that could have happened to any other character (even if the results would have been wildly different).

The Protagonist’s Problem is the conflict that the Protagonist brings with them to the story. No protagonist enters a story as a clean slate. They always bring their own story, their own problems, their own baggage. This is important, because the baggage that a protagonist holds is what shapes how they respond to the Inciting Incident and navigate through the rest of the story’s gaps and turning points. The Protagonist’s Problem is, therefore, necessarily internal and dominant in shaping their thoughts, behaviours and emotions. It is the hidden story, the story that is completely unique to the protagonist. Even if the  exact same Story Problem had happened to another character, the personal impact and permutations explored in the Protagonist’s Problem would never be replicated.

The existence of these two stories allows for two beginnings – Gap A can start with the Protagonist’s Problem, and the Inciting Incident can commence the Story’s Problem. Allowing you to start your story at the start!

How do you start your stories? What are the challenges and obstacles you face when crafting a compelling beginning?


Image courtesy of Aaronth via Flickr Creative Commons

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