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Starting with daily life?

So in the past I've been told I jump to the action (not necessarily physical) way too soon and no one cares about that character yet. Quite a few people suggested mastering the art of writing a daily life chapter that slowly builds towards the plot happening. But focuses on giving us the essence of the character and where they live.

I always avoided this because I thought it would be boring. It's not is the characters lives are very different to how we would live. But what if it's more mundane village life? Example: my first setting needs to contrast with my second setting. So it's a confined, cozy little town that is very "back-wards" for the rest of the world. They've kept true to the old ways of life (still use animals for work instead of machinery, make everything they use themselves). So my characters daily activities would be quite dull to most people. How can I write a first chapter that establishes my main character and keep it interesting? Also, if you know any books that achieve this slow build-up well please mention them so I can read those openings. Or, do you think this is actually poor advice?

Thanks for your answers


Myth Weaver
I think the Eddings' Belgariad Books, do a good job of establishing a mundane life and then stripping it away as the "action" begins.
I've read the opening of that book and while it was well written I found it very hard to keep interested. It was a very lengthy description of a kitchen, his aunt, then this place and that and the writer did do it in character but I struggled and found myself skipping lines to get to 'something happening'. The kitchen was important to the character but not to me at that moment. This is why I'm questioning starting my story with this. I like it for the character building stuff but often find, as a reader, the mundane can make me skip things or close the book.


I think a good rule of thumb is to always start your story at the latest possible point. If you are writing something that can be cut with no loss to the narrative, it often SHOULD be cut. However, that often includes stories that open with battle scenes. You are right; opening with a battle that has no stakes is pointless and boring. I have found a lot of stories start after the action, and I try and do that myself. When GRRMs Game of Thrones starts, Jon Arryn has already been killed and it is this upheaval that sparks the main narrative. I have also read stories that start after a major battle, in a smoking city, amongst rubble, on a quiet battlefield etc. which immediately conveys conflict and narrative without including the boring battle the reader wouldn't have cared about anyway.

Also worth thinking about is what is the driving force for change or conflict in your story? You can easily sprinkle conflict and narrative through a 'normal' day for your character. If there is a war to the east, signs of worry, conflict, economic turmoil, refugees etc. may be noticeable to your main character as they go about their life. But if your opening scenes have no sense of conflict, no driving narrative, and no tension, it's unlikely your reader will be hooked.
Both lord of the rings and the Hobbit start sort of with mundane stuff. There is still something happening out of the ordinary though.

The only good story (and it's one of my favourite stories) I can think of that starts with a guy waking up and brushing his teeth is the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. But that goes from normal to bulldozer running over the protagonists house to the earth being blown up within a single chapter.

In my opinion, unless you plan something like this, then start later. You have stories like the first wheel of time book or eragon which does start with a farm boy in a normal setting. But again, there is action relatively fast and it goes from normal to weird pretty fast. Also, both of these have a prologue that promise a lot of epic action.
I think solid openings often end up being a combination of setting, character and action, though the "action" doesn't have to be epic or over the top, but something that puts your character(s) in motion and gets the readers to ask questions, creates mystery or intrigue and peaks their interest.

That said you can do a lot in a few words..

A recent favorite of mine, The Binding, begins with: When the letter came, I was out in the fields. . .

There's your question inducer and an initial hint of the world/setting all in the first ten words. And, as the line is in first person, we can assume we will get to know a lot about that character very soon. The lines that follow create further questions and flesh out the setting while adding to the mystery as well, all before we find out what that letter is. That's no Bond-esque action, but its more than enough to carry the story because of the questions it creates, and then delivers on, before the end of the chapter.

As for a truly slow build, in today's literature, you're leaning more towards lit-fic or historical fiction with many of those. Even they will get you asking those important questions right off the bat and count on giving the reader a strong sense of the character and setting. And it's worth noting that often, the slow-build-opening books come from established authors who have a following of readers that will trust them to deliver if a book starts off in such a way.

You can also look to The Hunger Games. Which starts with character and world/setting but hints right off the bat at the ominous events and conflict to come all the way through its beginning. So if you want to give us character and setting, be sure to hint at the conflict that is to come. Something has to make the reader turn the page to see what happens next, especially if not much is happening in the here and now.

If that first chapter gets us into the routine/life of the MC but things turn a bit upside down on that character by the end of the chapter, you're fine. In that case, what's important is that the character, their voice and/or their life has to be interesting enough to carry us along so that when it goes awry, we care.

Another example of a good, slow beginning is, A Green and Ancient Light, which introduces us to the main character, the soon to be problematic situation as it arrives and the setting in the first few paragraphs. Still, you don't know all of that when you begin to read it. (the book has no chapter breaks at all but, if it did, that first break would be easy to mark by the turn of events. ) and its the voice of the narrator, who is looking back on the days that the story depicts, that is as much a hook as anything else.

Anyway I hope some of that helps. What I would offer as advice is to get the writing going. You don't need chapter one to truly be chapter one til the book is done! With few exceptions, what we start with as our idea for the first chapter in our draft usually changes somewhat, if not totally, as the book rounds into shape. So don't get hung up on that for too long right now. Go ahead and create your slow opening just a you'd like and then see how you feel about it when you have completed the draft. For my current WIP the first chapter has bounced all over the place and I still am not sure where it will truly begin. It's changed along with the story and I have three or four viable options. Once I'm done, I'll know better which one is the right one and, it might be one I haven't thought of yet. :)

Best of luck!
The daily life in a fantasy world is sometimes novel enough to be entertaining in itself. For instance, a novel which name escapes me had its heroine being the owner of a brothel. The novel started with her daily life, true, but it was a daily life which was much more interesting than if she had been ambushed by whoever or declared the chosen whoever.

The novel Crab Town has a protagonist who
is one of the 'balloon people', that is, regular folks who have sold all their organs and had their consciousness injected into a balloon.
Following the daily life of such a person gives that sensation of the fantastic, of something beyond our normal reality. It is hardly a coincidence that this isn't mentioned at all in the blurb; the author saved this bit of weird for the opening.

I believe that this is an important point, which a lot of authors strangely doesn't seem to consider—what information does the reader have already, from reading the blurb? For instance, Gone Girl is about a man whose wife disappears. Here's the blurb:

Who are you?
What have we done to each other?

These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?​

Because the reader knows that his wife is going to disappear and that he may or may not be entirely innocent, opening the story at an ordinary day, with his wife going about her business suddenly becomes very loaded. The novel starts with the author naughtily diving into the one way one is told never to start a novel, namely with the protagonist waking up:

My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.
At that exact moment, 6-0-0, the sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river toward our house, a long, blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains. Accusing: You have been seen. You will be seen.

Foreshadowing much? The first chapter goes pretty much like that. Lots of info-dumping (which the reader greedily digs through for any potential clues) and the constant promise that, yeah, things are gonna explode soon, just ya wait.

After a rather purplish prologue, the novel Perdido Street Station also starts with the protagonist waking up. This is a more easygoing opening, describing an ordinary morning, but due to the novel pairing of
a fat, middle-aged black male and a beautiful, red-skinned insect woman
, the banality serves to ground the fantastical.


toujours gai, archie
The example from Lord of the Rings is a good one. The opening is a birthday party. There is conflict, but the conflict is mundane, as befits the setting. Bilbo hiding from the Sackville-Bagginses is humorous, but amidst the preparations there's clearly something else looming.

Your character may not have anything looming. That's a mistake (imo) that many fantasy novels make. The call to action comes more or less out of the blue. Still, you can create mystery or menace without needing it to come from the Big Bad. Maybe the MC has lost some livestock and has to go look for it. Oh crap, they've gone into that forest. MC is hot on the trail. Go back for help? Or plunge ahead and get them out of there before one of them gets hurt?

That takes your MC outside the village and so outside ordinary life (this is what Hunger Games does with the hunt). Alternatively, the village might be visited by Mysterious Stranger or a band of Menacing Mercenaries who are just passing through. Another alternative might be a squabble with someone in a neighboring village.

The point of all this is to make the daily life part not be mere narration but to have it involve some sort of conflict at the mundane level, then connect that conflict (mystery, menace) connect to larger events in a way that either pulls the MC out of the village or brings the wide world to it.
Maker of Things Not Kings. I've been debating this "open with daily life" for a while within my own WIP. I agree it is a balancing act between establishing, well, everything and pacing the story.
Though I do want to make the distinction that the following advice has nothing to do with intriguing or 'hooking' the reader. That's an entirely seperate problem.

And, to clarify: I'm reading for an emmersive, evocative experience. So, I have the patience for prose and to read 'less action-y' things. Pacing, conflict and tension are all still important...but so is tone, mood, imagery, introspection.

There are countless ways to create tension that are both relevant to the character and should engage a reader. These initial points of tension or conflict can be absolutely trivial and even inconsequential to the rest of the overall plot. It's sometimes more constructive to use the 'seemingly inconsequential' as foreshadowing, or to make a signifigant card to play later in the plot. In fact, that can be a lot of fun to mess with later on. Reloading my crossbow, manning the wall against an invading horde lead by that succubus, I found myself thinking fondly back to when my biggest problem was worrying about if a girl I liked, liked me back...now there's a left flank overtaking the poppy fields. I was going to give that girl a poppy corsage, it was her favorite flower. I guess the demon I just took out between the crosshairs looked a little like my high school sweetheart: she probably would have looked fine wearing brilliant poppy red, too. Just not blood red. Like the blood red matting into the blonde demoness' hair, like that last headshot . Now, I'm counting how many bolts I have left to fire, knowing we'll be overrun soon, and for some reason my mind flashes to the girl I left behind, keeps flashing back to home. That place I left because I hated it so. This involuntary sentimentality is an unwanted thing, persistant, distracting my focus. Damn. I only have 9 shots left...

And, also for your consideration:
1. Is the character's idea of 'what is mundane' the same as the reader's idea of mundane?

If your character is already awake and working well before dawn, out in the rookery picking phytoscale mites off from hatchling dragons, that is perhaps grueling monotony to the character but a big wtf? to the reader.

You can capitalize on a modern audience's disconnection from a more... antiquated setting. Compare and contrast, even without fantastical elements. Most people do not live an agrarian lifestyle these days. You can really dial into that. Prey on a reader's expectations if you can.

If your MC is suppose to be threshing seed heads and is doing a half-assed job of it because he/she has been at it for days, and another character realizes they're shirking their duties... what conversation are they going to have? You have to get every last viable seed out...people's lives depend on it! How selfish and irresponsible! I don't care if you're tired. But, as the chapter continues it is revealed to the reader that it's not food they are growing from these precious seeds. They all depend on this plant, and a high yeild, for their druglord's operation. Every season, the demand increases and they have to keep up. Or else.

And, people have this... romanticized idea of what backwoods, quaint, agrarian lifestyles are like. Exploit that. Don't forget that farming and land sustenance operations are dangerous. Accidents happen. Especially without updated macinery. Beasts of burden can be overworked and just turn on you. Equipment breaks...if it breaks at the wrong time, it can cost you the harvest.

Capitalize on the endemic struggles within of a village. And, don't forget that people's personalities and personal conflicts can make a whole town on edge. Will it matter if you start your book as the following morning, after Mr. So-and-so found his wife with her lover, and the whole town heard gunshots and violence in the dead of night... now they're wondering who is still alive as they fix their breakfasts? But nobody actually wants to go outside just yet... because gunshots tend to make people want to mind their own damn business and stay inside. But not forever...have to disc that field today. 5 chapters later, that 'who survived the night' question may not be relevent to the current plot, but it did have a signifigant impact on the character at that time in the book. And that is not exactly insignificant for character development.

2. Is the character aware that this backwoods village is antiquated, and if so, by how much? If you're hitching a plow to a stubborn beast, but there's this newfangled contraption that does the same job without the animal... just why exactly aren't you using it?

3. If they are self-isolating from the rest of the world... why? Are they a fringe religious community? Are they so far off the map and remote nobody really pays attention and ignores them, or it's just too logistically difficult to procure stuff to modernize? Do marauding armies or thieves passover the village, because the villagers have no perceived value strategically or materialisticly, so that's why they keep living that way? What would it be like for a stranger to come to town?

Chapters of the 'every day' life are great places to plant clues, doubts, nuances, cultural expectations, character arcs, etc. and provide the ever-important context for your reader. It can be a subtle but powerful tool overlooked, underutilized, sacrificed, in the name of 'more action' and 'never show, always tell' mentalities.

Build up some intimacy with your reader, regarding your characters and daresay some wordsmithing, in a way that holds the reader's interest through every line, and keeps them turning pages rather than skipping them.
Great advice so far and it is odd me wanting to open with a more relaxed chapter because as a writer I like that idea, but as a reader I have little patience. I do, after a page, start wanting something interesting to happen. So for that reason I don't own many books with a more steady introduction, that balance everything really well. So if anyone has any more suggestions for novels that would be great. I'd like to actually read one that holds my interest just to see how it's done. Because if it can hold my interest it'll hold the interest of those with tons more patience than me!


It seems like people are debating whether to start the chapter either before or during the action. How about after?

You can tell a lot about a person based on how they act after something big has happened; like would they just go back to their lives, would they take the fallout head on, would they try to make sure that the disaster/action/conflict doesn’t happen again?

And giving the reader the chance to figure-out what happened right before chapter one is good since it gives them something to think over and analyze as they get to know the characters and setting.

This is what I did with my book. It starts three months after the inciting incident. And it doesn’t really become clear what that incident was until around chapter 4.
Great advice so far and it is odd me wanting to open with a more relaxed chapter because as a writer I like that idea, but as a reader I have little patience. I do, after a page, start wanting something interesting to happen. So for that reason I don't own many books with a more steady introduction, that balance everything really well. So if anyone has any more suggestions for novels that would be great. I'd like to actually read one that holds my interest just to see how it's done. Because if it can hold my interest it'll hold the interest of those with tons more patience than me!

Hmmm... well, most of what I could give as an example falls squarely into 'modern era' fiction. If that isn't objectionable, I'd recommend Chuck Palahniuk novels. (if you're not familiar, he uses framing devices, 1st person (unreliable) narrators and non-sequential / non-chronological storytelling. It's an acquired taste, but he does a regularly decent job of 'the steady opening' more often than not.) Also, Augusten Burroughs, especially "A Wolf at the Table". That book hit a little too close to home, and I had to stop reading it. But, the beginning of the book still sticks out in my head. I believe that was also a 1st person narrator.

WooHooMan makes a truly excellent point, and that's part of my debate with my book's opening. But, there is so much going on that it would lead to a lot of past-tense 'character reflecting and analyzing' narrative and it feels too... 'off' compared to the present tense of the narrative.


I think an interesting book to check out would be Philip K Dick's the Man in the High Castle. It's not fantasy, and it's pretty soft sci-fi, but that to my mind is a novel entirely about characters going about their normal lives and doing very little of anything that's remarkable in their world. BUT, the whole thing is set in an alternate future where the Axis powers won World War Two and the Nazis and Japan split the United States in two.


Article Team
There are many ways in which you can define action. A lot of times in writing, labels like this get thrown about and the literal meaning of a word used as a label can muddy the waters as to the spirit of what is meant.

Action is about giving the character goals and having them try and actively try and achieve those goals, usually, but not always, ending failure of some sort. So in the context of an opening day-in-the-life sort of scene, you show living their life in pursuit of their various desires/goals. Some of these may play key parts in the story/plot. Some may only serve to move the character through their pre-story life.

So say your POV character is a baker's son. You can open with them making deliveries, moving from place to place in the town/village, meeting all the various residents. Maybe they're trying to get their deliveries done, so they can go hang out with their friends. But there are things constantly getting in the way, long winded customers, slow moving carts, etc. As he's making his deliveries, he's constantly yearning to leave the town and go on an adventure. He knows he's meant for bigger things. When he arrives back at the family bakery, thinking his day is done, his father hits him with a surprise. He bought a 1000lbs of flour on the cheap, so the son now has to spend the rest of day sifting it. No hanging out with friends. But as he's sifting the flour, he finds a mysterious message hidden in one of the sacks. It's a cry for help from a kidnapped princess, claiming to be his sister. He doesn't have a sister, at least not one he knows about.
Creepy...a few of you have mentioned a letter or a message and that was going to be included in this first chapter. It happens a lot of here! I think something and then someone else says it.


toujours gai, archie
>something interesting to happen

Well, there's the rub, ain't it? What's interesting to one reader is dullsville to another. In fact, what is dull to one reader at one stage in their life might be interesting at another stage in that same person's life. The status of "interesting" or not isn't solely a function of the text. It's the result of a reader encountering that text.

All we can do as authors is write what seems interesting to us. There really is nothing that is absolutely guaranteed to be interesting. Even what is considered wowsers to one generation can be a big yawn to another generation. Some people just want car chases and explosions and you'd better deliver those fast and furious. Reference intended. Others are enchanted by prose and want your words to transport them.

Those people who say jump to the action, are they speaking in general terms or is that advice about a specific piece of writing? Is it the same advice from the same people? Were you yourself happy with the opening or were you dissatisfied and asked for feedback?
All we can do as authors is write what seems interesting to us. There really is nothing that is absolutely guaranteed to be interesting. Even what is considered wowsers to one generation can be a big yawn to another generation. Some people just want car chases and explosions and you'd better deliver those fast and furious. Reference intended. Others are enchanted by prose and want your words to transport them.

This!! Yes!!

I've never been one for high action openings myself. It's hard for me to care for a character in danger who I know little to nothing about. I cannot think of the last big action opening that kept me reading. They seem to be going by the wayside of late anyway.

I sometimes think the explanations of what action is would be better served by differentiating between motion and action. Get your character and story itself in motion. Moving forward. Not catching us up, not rehashing the history of the realm or the past. Forward motion. As simple or as complicated as you like.

One of my favorite books of late, Once Upon a River, begins with a several page introduction to the inns located in towns along the Upper Thames during the story's time period and what each is known for as the narrator focuses us in on the one that the story revolves around. There is motion in that opening even though it is several pages before we meet any of our actual characters. The inns. in essence, are characters. That sort of opening might bore some, of course, but it's the writing and, eventually, the characters/story in that book that sweeps me away, not any sense of action throughout.

Write what seems interesting to us.
I have to say Skip, the may be the best advice for most all that ails us. lol To have the confidence in our stories and the understanding that great stories are made. They don't just burst out ready and waiting to be read. :)
Personally, I like stories that start with mundane normality because it makes the far out/action stuff seem more real when it comes.

There's already been plenty of good advice so all I'd add is you don't have to go for a whole chapter of nothing happening before you hit the plot. It could be just a page or two to set the peaceful scene before all hell breaks loose - like the opening to Conan The Barbarian.

My last work was a HF novel which opened with the musings of a second son about to enter the seminary. He's actually conjugating Latin on the first page, but there is already a conflict. The reader knows he doesn't want to go into the seminary - he'd rather be a soldier. And by page 4 the reader learns of something the MC doesn't - the family wedding of that very afternoon will be attacked by Vikings in league with the MC's treacherous uncle.

From there it's a white knuckle ride, but it starts with conjugating Latin.
There are many ways in which you can define action. A lot of times in writing, labels like this get thrown about and the literal meaning of a word used as a label can muddy the waters as to the spirit of what is meant.

True, "action" is a bit of a clumsy metaphor, since its image is so close to what it's describing. It's a bit hard to keep "action" and "action scenes" apart.

Also, I feel that "action" is kind of a broad label, covering a lot of different things:
Agency—the hero has some sort of autonomy (a conflict can underline this. He might get into a discussion about his decision to grow a mustache).
Engagement—the hero's life story is already rolling. He's not just Luke Skywalker sitting around waiting for the call to adventure.
Progress—a sense of momentum, the story moving forward towards something. (A cow is missing, and the hero has to find out why. Now, this doesn't sound much like the epicness described in the blurb, but the reader will get that the story is rolling)
(likely other stuff too—this is a bit brainstormish)