In the Beginning

I’ve read a lot of articles, blog posts, and rants about how to begin – and, perhaps more common, how not to begin – a novel. Beginnings are more broadly relevant to writers than many other topics. After all, we do not yet have the technology to create novels without them. So I’ve been browsing a few of the aforementioned articles, found some common ground, and made some conclusions. So let’s have them! With liberal bolding of text! Because it’s the weekend!

But before we get to a list – you didn’t think I was going to do this without a list, did you? – I’ll mention a tip I got from a creative writing professor once. She said to never start a story with your protagonist alone. I don’t think she meant “never” in the sense of actually never, Taylor Swiftian never-ever-ever-ever, so much as “never start a story with your protagonist alone without considering whether things would be more interesting with a little interaction or conflict between her/him and someone else.” Certainly the presence of another character lends itself to dialog, and, as author Chuck Wendig says in his post on novel beginnings, “Dialog is sugar. Dialog is sweet.”

So, on to the list! Things I’ve seen or heard time and again about that tricky art, starting your novel out right:

  1. Thou shalt not start with thy protagonist waking up. Most especially waking up from a dream, waking up and looking in the mirror, or waking up on some particularly exciting day. (In the case of the latter, start with the part of the day that’s actually exciting.) Waking up from a dream and brushing her long wavy auburn hair in the mirror while reassuring herself about the first day of space academy is right out. This is largely because people mostly wake up roughly the same way and do roughly the same things in the morning. There are exceptions, of course. If your character is awakened at midnight because her house is on fire, that’s different. If she wakes up in a strange place, that’s different. But if she wakes up to her mom calling her for breakfast, that’s a foul.
  2. Beware prologues. There are good uses for them, but, as author K. M. Weiland points out in a nice article detailing four pitfalls of starting a novel, a prologue typically requires readers to invest in your story twice, often with different characters and/or taking place at very different times. Is the reader going to get attached to characters in the prologue only to lose track of them in Chapter One? Will the prologue hint at interesting events that are then skipped over as the first chapter begins ten years later? It may also be full of backstory that you would do better to work into the novel in other ways.
  3. Don’t be so set on starting in media res that you skimp on important details. Your reader should get a feel for the protagonist – not her waves of auburn hair, necessarily, but her general age, species, and societal status – and the setting, all pretty early on. Conflict is good, but jumping directly into a battle is no good if we have no idea what the battle is about or who any of the people fighting are. If you start with action, be careful to give the reader an understanding of the stakes and a reason to care.
  4. Conversely, don’t start by describing weather.
  5. Make sure your beginning conveys your voice. If it’s a funny story, start funny. If it’s gothic, start gothic. (Just don’t, according to literary agent Darley Anderson, start with a description of the moon. This oddly specific, but apparently very common, opener is number three on her ongoing list of “11 Ways Not to Start Your Novel”.)

There are exceptions to all of these. The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up. This post by author Kristin Lamb about the good and evil in prologuing points out that, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t actually begin with a prologue, it easily could have: that would have been a good way to separate baby Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ from the continuation of the story years later. (I don’t think many readers would be frustrated at the skipped time – I, for one, am okay with missing out on the adventures of infant Harry, which presumably involve sleeping and crying.) But, as with any writing “rules,” you should know the reasons they’re there and what you’re doing before you break one.

For my own part, I would add, “Don’t have a gimmicky ‘hook’ as your first line.” Your story has to live up to – ideally, surpass – its beginning. To me, a first sentence that punches me with shock value tends to read “trying too hard.” It’s also a gamble: while you deserve major props if you can fulfill the promise of a crazy first line, it’s easy to fall short, and that means that you disappoint your reader, which is probably not your goal. Probably.

A couple more posts on the topic:

Know any more good tips or posts on the topic? Got any ways that you particularly like, or don’t like, to see a story begin?

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