More than anything else, that comes down to where you start. Recently a writer asked if she should begin her novel when Larry’s wife Erica disappears. Or, instead, should the novel open at the moment when lonely Larry determines to begin actively searching?
To decide, consider the difference between these two starting points. One is a feeling of desperate loss, a feeling which introduces questions about what to do, which actions to consider. The other moment—a forceful decision to take action—is an actual plot point. It’s a true inciting incident, because it produces the plot rather than preceding it.
Mark Twain observed that “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” Isn’t the start of your novel far more significant than word choice? Note the gap between thinking about an action and taking one. Use that distinction to identify your starting point.
For your opening, you need the following components:
~ A moment of action (not a feeling, situation, or problem)
~ A self-explanatory action (not one that requires backstory, context, or elaboration)
~ An action explosive enough to drive an entire novel (not a conflict, but a dilemma)
~ An action with high stakes (not just risk, but a lose-all or win-all gamble)
~ An action that reveals the nature of your protagonist (not soon, but instantly)
~ An action that bonds us with your protagonist (by uniting courage with vulnerability)
As an exercise, a warm-up, an off-stage gathering of insight, it’s terrific for you to develop a full understanding of the events that caused your protagonist to risk the action that sets your novel in motion. But that’s only for you. You needn’t share it with your readers, and you definitely needn’t start out with it.
Tip: Begin your story not with what motivates action, but as close as possible to the point where the action starts.