You plan to start writing a novel. But how do you go about it?

Beginning your story is the hardest part in many ways. You have a lot of work to do in a very short period of time. This is because your readers need so much information as, of course, they start off knowing absolutely nothing.

(Okay, I know they’ll have read the blurb on the back of the book. But you cannot assume any of the information in that - you have to give all relevant information within the text of the story.)

So, when you start writing a novel you have to: 

  • Introduce your protagonist, including her physical description.
  • Introduce the main secondary characters.
  • Give the reader as much of the back story as is relevant so early.
  • Let the readers know the setting/location of the story. This includes the time period.
  • Briefly show how your protagonist is living now (the Ordinary World, in the terms of the Hero's Journey.
  • Set the scene for the conflict inherent in the story,
  • and, thereby, introduce the dramatic question.

Moreover, you have to do all this in as brief a time as possible, before the reader gets bored. The reader needs all the above information, but yet has a low tolerance for getting it. She wants to move on with the story. She will give you some leeway. She knows that she needs information, and she’s happy to give you some time to provide that. But still, in every second she’s subconsciously asking herself: Is this story worth reading? Will I continue reading or put the book down?

You’re always only one sentence from your reader abandoning your story, and your job as the writer is, above all, to keep them reading!

The start of your novel:

Start strongly. The days of ambling descriptive beginnings are long gone. If your story doesn’t grab your reader and compel him to keep reading, your novel will not succeed.

All stories are about change. Your protagonist wants something she doesn’t have, and is trying to get it. In trying to get it, she has to change her life.

So one suggestion is to start the novel at the moment of change.

This does leave you with the dilemma of telling the back story - see the section on that for more ideas on how to do that.

One other solution to that dilemma is to quickly introduce some narrative hook to excite the reader’s curiosity. For instance, you could start with something like:

If I had know what was going to happen, I’d never have agreed to mind Mary’s dog.

Immediately the reader is wondering, What did happen?

That curiosity will keep her reading for a period of time, during which you can establish the protagonist’s Ordinary World, and give all the other needed information. This curiosity only buys so much reader-interest, so to speak, so be careful not to squander it.

So, to continue our example, you could write:

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. It’s just that studio apartments in Wandsworth are no place for dogs.

So now, we’ve casually introduced the setting into the beginning of the story. You need to judge it as to how much detail your reader needs. Most people wouldn't know where Wandsworth is, I think. So better to say 'Central London', as everyone will know that. And even people who don't know central London of their own experiences, will know that the centre of all big cities has dense living conditions and small houses/apartments.

This snippet even does the job of giving us the rough time period, as studio apartments are definitely contemporary. You can continue in this manner to give a bit of back story, description and so on. But as I say, don’t overdo it. The reader is keen to get on with the story.

One way of exploring this whole subject more is to read the first few pages of various other books and novels, and see how those writers have dealt with the challenge of successfully beginning their story.

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