The DNA of a Beginning

As some of you know, my secret identity is an engineer. And, justly, I use an analytical approach to many problems I tackle. So, in preparation for this post on Beginnings, I let my inner scientist run wild: Dissecting good books at hand, carefully slicing apart their chapter ones, first pages, and opening lines. All the while, thinking, thinking, thinking.

(Ok, maybe I didn’t do all of this for this post, but I’ve done it in the past…and I did think a lot about what to tell y’all on the matter of Beginnings).

Guess what? Even though my sample set of books contained wildly different genres and characters and plots and voices, all from different eras, I noticed a trend.

A strong trend that reminded me of DNA.

DNA, you say? (If you actually didn’t say, do so now. Thanks).

Yep, DNA. The long strands of molecules which uniquely define a living being from the moment of conception. Whether it was a Classic or the latest National Book Award winner, all these books seem to have the same something in common, though I couldn’t pinpoint it.

Hot on a trail, I dug deeper.

DNA is made up of four distinct molecules (all ending in “-ine”) that when paired, sequenced, and linked, create a near infinitely possible code that sticks with a person (or frog or bacterium) from womb to tomb. Could there be some sort of “molecular” structure for the first chapter? What are the “–ines” of a good beginning?

And, EUREKA! After many long, sleepless nights, I found the building blocks of a good story. The DNA of a Beginning.

  • Responsible for making sure there’s a reason to read onward to the next word or next page. Often, Hook-ine appears as the questions/problems driving the plot and characters.
  • In initial pages, Hook-ine may appear almost insignificant (“What is this Reaping Day Katniss speaks of?”), however, it quickly evolves in scale (“Will Katniss survive The Hunger Games?”).
  • Additionally, Hook-ine has been identified in the inward problems of characters (“Peeta or Gale?”).
  • Facilitates the general body shape of the story.
  • Theme-ine expresses the core genre. For example, a fantasy will show fantastical stuff from the first pages. A Western will probably involve a train, horse, or shootout.
  • It is also responsible for posing the BIG QUESTIONS that the story may or may not answer, but will certainly tackle (“How far would a person go to save themselves? How far would a society go?”).
  • Generates the cosmetic way a book presents itself. (Katniss’ voice is stark vs. Lemony Snicket’s zany narrator). Little is understood about Voice-ine, but it definitely creates mood and tone.
  • It also significantly contributes to the pace of a story (having Katniss in the present tense means the reader does not know if she’ll live or not).
  • For a fully functional story, Voice-ine saturates every word, starting with first.

  •  Care-ine’s major function is to provide a reason for a reader to dive into the book.
  •  Care-ine is a critical component to main characters, but also to villains (the reader wants Cato to die almost as bad as he/she want Katniss to live).
  • The most mysterious of the building blocks, Care-ine transcends the written word and touches the reader in a primal and personal manner. 

So, all we have to do is mix these “-ines” together and presto – a novel is alive, kicking, and on it’s way to becoming a bestseller/award winner?

Not so fast.

DNA in the wrong environment is just a glob of useless snot (actually, it has similar color and consistency). The same goes with the DNA of a Beginning. Without a delicate balance of setting, fully-formed worlds, and complex characters…you won’t be able to do a thing with the world’s supply of Hook-ine, Theme-ine, Voice-ine, and Care-ine.

Brilliant study, huh?

I’m just waiting for the Nobel Prize committee to call. Wonder what’s taking them so long. I bet it’s that they’re fighting to determine if I should win in Literature or Chemistry. That’s it. Gotta be.


As a fellow boffin I simply LOVE this analogy!

So, do you think I should start my next WIP by typing alternating strings of the letters HTVC? People would get it, right?

Make sure the Nobel Prize committee has your correct phone number. Surely they've decided to award you in BOTH Literature and Chemistry.

I hadn't realized there would be a way to scientifically break down the quantifiable genetic code for a book into four distinct -ines. You've clearly outdone yourself and I'm personally impressed with your analogy.

Now I'm off to go check in the WiP I'm working on has any of this DNA in it all :-)

Thanks, all.
I guess while I'm waiting for the prize committee to call, I'll try to get some more HTVC into my book.

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