Once I understand my story lines and have an intimate relationship with my characters, it’s time to figure out how to begin the story.
How does a novelist determine exactly where to begin the novel? Many new authors are apt to start a story too early rather than too late.
To determine where to start, determine when your first dramatic event or your first major plot point occurs. Thought your beginning doesn’t need to start with action, something important does need to be occurring as it relates to the story line. The beginning of your novel needs to begin by hooking your audience into the story through either action, character, or setting.
The First Line
The story begins with the first line. Perfect first lines can be vivid or establish a unique story voice. It may contain a surprise, something that makes the audience laugh, a statement of truth. The first line can also be very clear and contain the entirety of the novel. The perfect line takes many forms and only you can determine the perfect first line of your story.
Be patient as you look for it. You may have to take several tries before you find the right one that hooks the reader into your story.
Try starting with an interesting detail of character, setting or something symbolic of your story’s largest themes.
Your Novel’s First Paragraph
Your great first line must then be followed by a great opening paragraph.
A great opening line must be followed by a great opening paragraph. It’s hard to do either if you don’t have a central story idea that inspires you and suggests ideas, but if you have done the work of determining your story line (and subplots) and have developed an intimate relationship with your characters, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Take some information about your protagonist and your setting and create a scene where your protagonist is just before the first plot point. This type of story opening can us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. We get roped more into the character’s life as we start to see glimpses of his past and the environment and upbringing that shaped him.
In addition, you may want to add a bit of mystery to your story. For instance, your character may do something in the opening paragraph that makes the reader wonder what is going on and why that character might be doing what he is doing.
If the story opens with a narrator, how does the narrator’s voice itself capture our interest? with humor? or distinct personality?
Every novel opening contains at least one of the following elements of great opening hooks. Do you have unanswered questions? Intriguing actions or events? A troubling or unusual or suspenseful scenario?
TENSE AND POINT OF VIEW
With your first paragraph, determine how you will handle tense and point of view throughout the whole story. Most novels are written in the past tense. It is important to maintain that tense throughout the entire book. If you choose to try to use some other tense (as an experiment), be sure to use that throughout the novel.
Though traditionally, tense has been past tense, you have always had options when it comes to how traditional novels approach point of view.
You might choose first person. I ran after the dog.
You might choose third person Jan ran after the dog.
You might choose omniscient. Jan ran after the dog while the class watched and wondered. Would she catch him?
A more modern approach is to switch between viewpoints and even use present tense instead of past tense. Before deciding on viewpoint and tense consider this. Studies have shown that older readers prefer past tense while younger ones prefer present tense. If your audience is older, use past tense. If younger, consider using present tense.
hatever you decide, use the same method throughout the book either present or past tense. You want to avoid confusing your readers with too many tense or point of view changes.
Not sure which POV to write in? Write your first scene first in first person, then third person limited and then omniscient. Which one feels right?
Look for A Natural Starting Point
Does writing your own starting point make you realize your choices are limitless, and this paralyzes you? Yet your novel must flow from the first scene you select. Where should you start? Start wherever you think it should start. You can always change it later. Perhaps even several times until you have the perfect beginning.
You can also start with your character sketches. Ask yourself what this character is doing when you first meet him and write about it.
Read over how you started your first draft. Did you start at a good place or do you think you should have written it later? Did you start too far before the action? If so, look for a better place later in the book. The truth is, you can start your story any number of ways. Come back to this first line, first paragraph and first page several times throughout the writing process until you believe that it is as good as it gets.
Present Strong Characters Immediately
Remember the old adage: Show Don’t Tell. Be sure to bring your protagonist into the first chapter and show him doing something. Establish your characters’ situations. What do they know at the beginning?
Don’t Overdo the Setting
Don’t give the opening scene in too much depth. You’ve got it all pictured in your head: the colors, sounds, flavors and feelings. You want everybody to be in the same place with the story you are. Instead, easy them into the view. An introduction is enough, for now. You’ll fill in the details later. Just give them the basic feel of the setting of whether you’re on star ship or a street in a British colony. Instead of giving the history of the place and how long the character has lived there and the weather, consider showing the character in the setting with a few details that show the scene in that moment. Perhaps even indicate how the character feels about the scene.
Later you can add more details telling about the house, the street, the neighbors and the household pet.
Carefully Choose Details to Create Immediacy
In chapter one, you’ll need to keep your details economical, but avoid vagueness. You want to include details that are necessary to the story and move it along. If the detail serves the story, you can’t have too much.
Make Chapter One a Story in Itself
It’s no accident that many great novels have first chapters that were excerpted in magazines, where they essentially stood as short stories. I remember being knocked to the floor by the gorgeous completeness of Ian McEwan’s first chapter of On Chesil Beach when it was excerpted in The New Yorker.
Every chapter should have its own plot, especially chapter one.
Focus on action. Make trouble. Put your characters in jeopardy early. Make trouble early and make it big or make it ominous.
Don’t let your characters be wishy-washy. Make them decisive. A good way to do that is to make a character take decisive action. End chapter one with some closure, but make that closure false.
Put your Best In Chapter One
Set your tone and flaunt it. Have confidence to own your book. Show the reader that you have generated a terrific idea for action and emotion whenever you want. Pull your reader into your story from the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph, and the first line. Hook your reader like a big game fisherman.
Don’t Make these Rooky Mistakes
Whether you’re thinking about self-publishing or going traditional, here are several ways that professional agents would not like if you use these following “techniques” when writing your first chapter.
False beginnings Make Readers Feel Cheated
1. Don’t kill off your main character at the end of Chapter One.
2. Don’t create opening scenes that you think are real, but then the protagonist wakes up.
1. Readers prefer to find themselves in the midst of a moving plot from page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.
2. Make chapter one relevant and well-written
3. Prologues are a lazy way to bring back-story chunks to the reader. Backstorys can be handled better within the story. Forget Prologues.
Exposition and description
1. Don’t go beyond what is necessary to setting the scene. The reader wants to feel as though he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. Long descriptions in chapter one can make the story seem amateurish and contrived.
2. However, equally as bad is the lack of any exposition where the reader becomes disoriented when they learn five pages in that the location is not what the reader thought. Better to have a balance between exposition and mystery.
3. Avoid too many adjectives and adverbs.
4. Avoid long laundry lists of character descriptions. Work character descriptions into the story.
Starting too slowly
1. Though you might want to start with “status quo” at the beginning, don’t have the characters moving around doing little things like housework and thinking.
2. Don’t start with “in the beginning” or “once upon a time” beginnings where nothing happens.
1. Show don’t tell. Fill your readers’ heads with curiosity about your characters and questions that must be answered. Do this rather than fill them in on exactly where when, who and how.
2. Avoid filling scenes with flowery prose.
3. Avoid starting with a cheesy hook.
4. Avoid starting with My name is. . .
5. Make your main characters more interesting than your secondary ones.
Characters and backstory
1. Don’t make your characters too perfect. Heroes and heroines need obvious flaws.
2. Have a great plot started before you express too much about the character’s backstory. Good writers focus on plot and cut out the back story. You’ll be amazed at how much the backstory is part of the character’s DNA.
3. Start with action rather than reflection.
4. Don’t drop too much information into the first few pages. Getting to know characters is like getting to know people in real life.
In crime fiction
Don’t start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover.
Don’t start with the opening scene set with a battle or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs.
No having a woman (or man) awakening to find herself with a strange man in her bedroom and automatically finding him attractive. If the average woman awoke to a strange man in her bedroom, she’d be reaching for a weapon, instead of lusting after him.
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