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Where to Begin?

Cheryl's Musings: Where to Begin?

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Where to Begin?

I had a great conversation with the members of my critique group last Friday about where my new novel should begin. One member, a multi-published fantasy author, said I was beginning the story too soon, basically giving backstory. A fantasy/sci-fi novel, she said, needs to have a "Call to Action" by the end of the first chapter. We brainstormed and came up with a couple compelling and exciting twists that would bring action in the opening.

But once home, I began to question whether action DOES belong in my opening chapter. So I decided to do a little survey, to see where the “call to action” occurs in a number of current YA novels. Here’s what I found:


Shrinking Violet, by Danielle Joseph is a contemporary YA novel. By the end of chapter 1, the reader knows that Teresa is painfully shy, that she fantasizes about being the DJ “Sweet T,” and that a DJ spot just opened at her stepdad’s radio station—but she’s too scared to volunteer.

Call to Action? I’d say no. The groundwork has been laid, but Teresa is not FORCED to act. And she doesn’t—yet.


M.E. Breen’s Darkwood is a YA fantasy. By the end of chapter 1, the main character (Annie) has overheard her aunt and uncle planning to sell her to the Drop, where she fully expects to die.

Call to Action? Yep. Stay and get sent to certain death versus flee into the dangerous darkness and face unknown dangers.  Annie has to make a choice.


Need, by Carrie Jones is another YA fantasy, but this is one of those “real world” fantasies that starts in the here-and-now. For the first few chapters, the readers gets hints of other, but no clear portrayal of the paranormal or fantastical.

Call to Action? Not so much. By the end of chapter one, the reader knows about Zara’s troubled past and that she’s crushed by her father’s recent death. We also know that her mother is worried about her and has sent her to Maine to stay with her grandmother. We get one hint of the supernatural: a weird-looking guy who might or might not be stalking her.


In R.A. Nelson’s contemporary YA Breathe My Name, the first chapter sets the stage for the story ahead: Frances lives with nightmares, sleeplessness, and stress because deep down she fears the return of her real mother.

Call to Action? Nope, this takes place a few chapters down the road, when the lawyer arrives with a letter from her biological mother.

So…what have I learned from all this?

  1. That a book’s opening—as we all know—is VERY important. It has to hook the reader and set the stage for the rest of the story.
  2. BUT—that doesn’t mean that the first chapter HAS to include the actual “call to action.” Especially when plot and character are closely intertwined, it makes sense to introduce the main character and her underlying problem in the opening chapter.
  3. In straight fantasy, it seems more common to introduce the call to action in chapter 1; in contemporary fiction, not as much.
  4. Some books cross genres—like Need and Twilight. These books seem more likely to break the “rule” about introducing the call to action in chapter 1.


At August 31, 2009 at 1:14 PM , Blogger carriejonesbooks said...

I hope you don't feel like I'm stalking you, but I saw that you linked to my website and then I read your entry.

Originally, my book started at the Charleston airport with the main character and her mom rushing through the airport because her mom had seen a strange man in the parking lot. Then Zara (MC) sees that same man as the plane takes off. The chapter ends with just him pointing. The editor changed it because she thought it began with the stakes too high.

Weird, huh?

It's totally anecdotal, but more for you to ponder.

At August 31, 2009 at 2:42 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Carrie,
I'm delighted you stopped by! It's funny to hear that you originally *did* start the book with the weird/possibly supernatural man in the scene. I wonder if the original version would count as a "call to action"? It sounds like Zara still wouldn't choose to embark on her journey--but she is compelled to do so.

I think your book begins in a strong place, because the story is as much about Zara dealing with her father's death as it is about the supernatural storyline. It lets the reader get to know her (and care about her) a bit more before you plunge into the "action" portion of the story. Are *you* happy with the new beginning?

This has been a valuable exercise for me. Thanks so much for sharing some of your process. ~Cheryl


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