Ah, sweet relief! You’re alone in your office with every other member of your household occupied elsewhere. The fragrance of your favorite beverage fills the air. Brain foods (like chocolate) await your pleasure. Your phone is muted, and a Do Not Disturb sign warns would-be intruders away from the front door. Now is the time! You power on your trusty computer and settle in to start your novel.
Now you’re not so sure about that beginning. It seems sort of…well…bland. Maybe you should blow something up, instead. Aren’t you supposed to grab the reader with action? Another starting place might work better for that. Oh, bother! You’d have to leave out part of the story and try to work it in as you go. How would that jive with avoiding backstory?
You have too much of that, already.
What if you went backward in the story, instead? Starting at the very beginning, like Julie Andrews in that song might solve everything. Except that readers in your genre probably won’t want to start with your heroine’s childhood.
It occurs to you that there’s laundry to be done, dishes in need of washing, and weeds overtaking the garden.
Where to Start Your Novel
Your novel’s opening is where you’ll introduce the main character, reveal the primary theme, initiate the story problem, set the tone of your story, introduce conflict, establish the setting, and raise questions for the reader, all while engaging the emotions by connecting a sympathetic main character with a universal experience.
Are you sweating, yet?
Make it easy on yourself by finding the starting point that helps you accomplish all of this in a single scene. Your preferences, genre expectations, and the needs of the story should all factor into which starting place you choose.
The Main Character’s Normal Life
With some genres, readers are there for the story world as much as for the characters. This allows a slower pace at the beginning. Epic fantasy and historical fiction are two examples that come to mind. For genres of this type, starting with a slice of the main character’s normal life rather than jumping in with the inciting incident can make sense. The biggest danger with this kind of beginning is losing your readers’ interest. Counter this by providing a terrific hook as early as possible, at least by the end of the first chapter. I would go so far as to include it before the end of the first scene, if possible. Make sure you keep up the pacing. Beginning at a slower pace does not mean a ‘snail’s pace.’
The Inciting Incident
Starting with the point of no return where your protagonist’s life changes forever is much touted these days but requires precision. By jumping in at the inciting incident, you risk reader apathy. It’s hard to care about the struggles of a character you’ve only just met. Have you ever watched a movie that opened with a gratuitous car chase? Chances are, you disconnected emotionally. This happens in fiction, too. Since you haven’t given a glimpse of the main character’s normal life, you’ll have to work this information in later without overloading the pacing with backstory. Opening with the inciting incident is not for the faint of heart, but if done well, can satisfy reader expectations in genres that rely more on action than introspection, like thrillers and classic westerns.
In the Middle of the Action
Starting after the action begins, or in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of affairs,” can create immediacy. However, since much of the story has passed, this kind of opening calls for the skillful use of flashbacks, introspection, and dialog. Homer’s Odyssey opens with Odysseus turning homeward after the fall of Troy. Science fiction and fantasy readers may be more willing to accept such an unusual format. This isn’t a common place to begin a novel, but I’ve included it in case it sparks ideas for the adventurous.
At the End
Opening at or near a story’s ending can pique a reader’s curiosity. Why does the heroine throw a valuable necklace into the ocean? Will the hero’s airplane crash in the next few minutes? Why is that noose around the hero’s neck? With the reader hooked, the story returns to the beginning to unfold chronologically or progresses as a series of flashbacks. This sort of format used to be called a ‘frame story’ and was frowned upon because so many authors mishandled its use. It can feel clunky and may be difficult to write but can work well for mystery novels, in particular.
|DawnSinger & WayFarer.|
Tips From My Own Writing Adventures
Deciding where to begin can be the hardest part of writing a novel. I know. I had to back up into the backstory when writing Tales of Faeraven, my allegorical fantasy series. Every time I tried to begin the story, I became disoriented. Out of self defense, I outlined the backstory of my complex story world, becoming so enmeshed that I had to give up and write the thing. DawnSinger is the first book in the series. Here’s the backstory I couldn’t resist:
The High Queen is dying… At the royal summons, Shae mounts a wingabeast and soars through the air to the high hold of Faeraven, where all is not as it seems. Visions warn her of danger, and a dark soul touches hers in the night. When she encounters an attractive but disturbing musician, her wayward heart awakens.
But then there is Kai, a guardian of Faeraven and of Shae. Secrets bind him to her, and her safety lies at the center of every decision he makes. On a desperate journey fraught with peril and the unknown, they battle warlike garns, waevens, ferocious raptors, and the wraiths of their own regrets. Yet, they must endure the campaign long enough to release the DawnKing—and the salvation he offers—into a divided land. To prevail, each must learn that sometimes victory comes only through surrender.
Tip: If you’re fascinated with your backstory, maybe it deserves even more attention.
When it came to plotting Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1), which will release in 2017, I wrote three different openings before figuring out where it needed to begin. Sometimes you have to try on a pair of shoes to find out if they fit.
With Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue, book 3), I’m venturing into romantic suspense as part of a linked-fiction series with two other authors. I started the story with a large dog knocking down Piper, the heroine, on a dock, thereby introducing her to its owner, a young girl at the center of a mystery. I loved the beginning, but my critique partners informed me (correctly) that you can’t open suspense novel with an amusing incident. I reworked the scene, and now as Piper stands up after being bowled over by her canine admirer, she notices a pair of binoculars trained on her.
Tip: Sometimes you only need to make a few adjustments to fit within your genre.
Novel Beginning Traps
I hesitate to pass on writing advice that tells authors what they should and shouldn’t do, because invariably some writer will prove everyone wrong. I’m of the opinion that there are too many writing ‘rules’ for writers nowadays. Reading vintage writers, as I do, can be eye-opening because many of our modern rules for writers weren’t even on their radar. (Read my literary review of Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier to see what I mean.) I can give my opinion, however. The following beginnings might best be avoided.
The novel starts with the protagonist in danger, but then we discover it was just a dream. Only after the main character dies at the end of the first chapter do we find out he was actually a minor character and the hero is someone else. Readers don’t like being manipulated by contrived hooks. Instead, find a hook relevant to your main story.
Some readers automatically skip prologues, and most agents and editors hate them, so unless there is a compelling reason to include one, don’t.
Too Much Description
You may have kissed the blarney stone when it comes to description, but your reader is a stranger to your story world and needs a gentle introduction. Front-loading description at the beginning of your story overwhelms not only its readers, but the pacing as well.
Death by Trivia
Does the reader really need to follow your heroine as she climbs out of bed, brushes her teeth, squints at her face in the mirror, and makes coffee? Unless something interesting and relevant to the story is going on, start at a different point. As science fiction author Elmore Leonard put it in his 10 Rules of writing: “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Death by Backstory
The story opens in the moment but then moves backward to hash out backstory. This doesn’t work because the pacing (and the reader’s interest) goes to minus zero.
Choosing an opening for your novel can be a painful process, but don’t let it hang you up. Deciding where to start is not as important as beginning to write at all. You may never feel entirely certain that starting the story somewhere else wouldn’t have floated the story better, but sometimes you have to wade in and take your chances.
Have you struggled to begin a novel? Please share what helped you find a starting point.
Today Seekerville is giving away a Kindle copy of DawnSinger to one commenter in honor of Janalyn's visit. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
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Janalyn Voigt is a storyteller who brings her unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy to several genres. Beginning with DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the Tales of Faeraven series carries readers into a fantasy land only imagined in dreams. Sojourner, the next title in this series, is pending publication. Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue: San Juans), a romantic suspense novel set in an island paradise off the coast of Washington, releases this month. Look for Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1). a western historical romance set during Montana's gold rush, to release in 2017.
Live Write Breathe, the website where Janalyn teaches writers to live with passion, write well, and remember to breathe, was named one of the Write Life's 100 best websites for writers in 2016.
Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.
Learn more about Janalyn Voigt and her books.
Visit Live Write Breathe, Janalyn's website for writers.
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