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Where Do I Start? 3 Do’s and 5 Don’ts for the Beginning of Your Novel

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photo from Flickr via Creative Commons from Omar Bárcena


Let’s start at the beginning. Well, duh. Where else are you going to start?

Beginnings are one of those things in the writing world that seem to be their own entity. If you don’t nail the first sentence, the first page, the first chapter, you risk the chance of not having your book read at all, by either readers or agents/editors. There is so much pressure to make a good start to your book.

How many times have you met someone and decided instantly whether or not you liked them? We do this all the time. Someone appears attractive for whatever reason—nice clothing, friendly smile, good personality—you get an impression of someone before they even speak. That’s what your book cover does. A good cover tells the potential reader what to expect when a book opens its mouth.

So that means the first page is that moment when you meet someone for the first time. The handshake, the greeting, the whole “what’s your name and what do you do” of getting to know someone. After a short conversation, chances are, you know whether or not this person is your type of friend, colleague, date, whatever.

How does your book hold up in the first meeting? Is that first sentence a limp handshake or a bone-crushing grip? Does your first page ramble on and on about nothing? Is it all small talk: “How’s the weather?” or “Did you see the game?”

Think for a minute about someone you met who you had an instant connection with. Chances are, it wasn’t their comment on the heat or snow that made you want to talk to them. It was something in their eyes or smile, it was something they said or did that connected. It was not observing them sitting on a bench staring off into space that made you think, “This person is worth knowing!”

Take a look at your first page. Does it involve a description of the weather or the setting? Does it talk about how bored your character is or that he or she is staring off into space, thinking? Or does it start with something happening? Is there movement? And most importantly, is it told in a way that makes it worth reading?

Your first sentence is critical because it’s the first thing after the cover that a reader knows about your book. And it should set the stage for the rest of the story. There should be enough in your first sentence to hint at the main conflict of the story.

A few basics to consider:

DON’T
1. Start with weather.
2. Start with dialogue (it’s too vague–who’s talking and to whom, etc.).
3. Start with something that’s not part of the bigger picture.
4. Start with a dream.
5. Start too soon before the initial moment of conflict (the inciting incident that will set things in motion).

DO:
1. Create intrigue so that the reader starts wondering something about your character and the situation.
2. Start with action–something must be happening.
3. Give a hint of what’s to come in both tone and conflict.

After writing the first page of my current WIP novel at least 6 times (on top of many, many edits), I have learned one valuable piece of information. Don’t worry about the beginning until the end. Just start writing.

If you spend time at the beginning worrying too much about your beginning, you may never actually write a beginning. Once you finish writing and start editing, the beginning will become more clear. It’ll be easier to judge when to start and how to start in order to convey the important things. Even if you think you have a brilliant beginning, chances are, by the end of your novel, you’ll see significant changes that need to be made.

Luckily, there are a bunch of contests and blogs out there, willing to critique first pages. These have helped me tremendously. I suggest checking out Ellen Brock’s First Page Fridays. Also, Brenda Drake and The Authoress have contests running constantly for this sort of thing (and query letters).

Stay open to comments and possibilities. With my latest project, it wasn’t until I started my MC in a new location and altered the first scene that I landed on a good beginning. My problem was, I had been so set on starting at a certain place, I couldn’t see that it wasn’t the best opening. Once I sat back and forced myself to think of another start, I came up with something better than the thing I had been stubbornly holding onto.

What’s been your biggest struggle in writing the beginning?

Denise Drespling

20 Comments

  1. Great post!
    Its so very true. Some times we just have to let go and start fresh. Don’t focus on painting the whole forest, start with just a single tree.

    • I think my opening was fine until I introduced a sub-plot. This sub-plot apparently happened in a moment of automatic writing channeled from a distant relative (a dead distant relative) because it was neither plotted nor forseen. Once I had this new string bobbing along under my initial fishing line (a lame reference to my title, Looking-glass River), my opening seemed to fall flat. I’ve been (sorry) floundering ever since. I like what you had to say about ‘just writing’ and not worrying too much about the opening. So I wanted to say Thank you. And also, I found you on the front page of the New Castle News. I live in New Castle and don’t usually buy the paper, but when I read ‘county woman published’ I picked it up. The story of your struggles and your mother’s unflagging support through cards and letters was lovely. I lost my mother on Christmas Day 1992 and even though we only lived across town from each other, we wrote letters back and forth. Every now and then I read some of them and I usually end up laughing over her misspelled words or her simple child-like amazement of things like HBO and Oprah. I’m sorry for all that you’ve been through, but then, those are usually the very things that inspire us to write.
      I’m sure you’re busy writing and filming your Youtube videos-they’re great- but if you have time, please check out my little blog at suzyq174.wordpress.com. I consider myself first and foremost a fiction writer, but sometimes I have to put the props away and dust off the real me. I’ll keep reading, Denise. I’m happy to know that while we may not be legion, there are a few good writers sprinkled about this area. ~Blessings, Suz

      • I love your puns! Had me laughing :) Hello, fellow New Castlian! So glad you saw the paper. I can’t believe they put me on the front page! Good writers are everywhere, for sure! I read your Night Owl story and it was great. You ever think about submitting to Chicken Soup? Let me know if you’re ever looking for a local writers’ group!

  2. Your post is so timely. I’m in the process of revising a novel I wrote a decade ago. Even though I’m seeing it with fresh eyes, it’s nice to be reminded of those important first sentences, pages, and chapters. Thanks.

  3. I have been a culprit of starting with the weather! lol. This was great! Short and to the point and I totally get it!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Ha ha! We all have done it. It’s a great way to set scene and tone, but besides the fact that we don’t connect with character, I think it’s become cliche.

  4. I”m writing a memoir and still need to hear this. A ten year slice of my life beginning with my late husband’s death, or when he was diagnosed?

    • Good point. Sorry for your loss. A memoir is still a story even if a true one. Is your book mostly about the time between diagnoses and death or after?

  5. Good advice, I think. My first beginning, 5,000 words worth, became back story. I’ve written 3 beginnings since, and I expect I will throw them all away. Someone suggested that you do not know what your novel is about until you’ve written the first full draft. I suppose that must be the number one mission, and the beginning will come after the end.

    • Thanks! I’d have to agree that you don’t really know what your novel is about until the first draft is complete. Even though I start with an outline, something always changes along the way. Many of my beginnings changed after writing “The End.” This is also why, when I write, I just bang it out without editing at all, then go back when it’s done.

  6. I started with a dream…..but it was in the SECOND book of my series, not the first. And it played a part into the big picture. It’s not something I’d do willy-nilly :-D

    • If it’s important, I think you’re fine. But sometimes stories start with a dream just to give it more action, or they aren’t used correctly. You can break any rule if you do it right!

  7. The beginning of a story should make the reader ask a question that compels him or her to read further in search of the answer. Of the rules listed, I think the #1 DO rule is the most important.

  8. A good quote from your post is to not spend too much trying to make the best beginning. You just need to start writing. That’s a great way to look at it!

    • Exactly! I know that I end up rewriting the beginning many times anyway, and I think lots of writers do. It’s easier to see what the beginning needs to be once you have the book finished.

  9. I find as a writer with no real training etc the easiest way for me to work is to just write it out from start to finish and then to go back and add the description, then to go back and re word it, then to go back and re read it.. and i am still not happy or ever confident that its good enough haha and yet i still enjoy it so for me thats all that really matters! Thanks for the tips.. i havent so far fallen to those starting traps!

    • If that works for you, go for it! Everyone has a different writing style. Joining a critique group is a great way to see how your work holds up, and how to improve it :)

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