Writing – or Re-writing – Your Novel’s Beginning

A little plant represents starting off right, as in your novelStarting Your Novel Right

If you work hard and eat your vegetables, oh part-time novelist, you’ll eventually find yourself in the position of rewriting the first draft of your novel. All kinds of interesting things happen, like, for instance you discover that your beginning needs to be gutted and rebuilt.

Argh. Such is the position in which I find myself at present.

Overdrawn at the Brain Bank

I love my original beginning, but it’s a prologue. A corking scene, to be sure, but prologues tend to get you excited about one thing and then you have to switch to another – like the main character, in my case. The thing to do, per my reading in the craft literature and in actual literature-literature, is to start the book off with an engaging – no, riveting – scene that will introduce the protagonist and make everybody fall over themselves caring about him.

I made a few tries at said riveting scene and found I was overdrawn at the cleverness bank.

Ideas for Starting Your Novel

What’s a writer to do? Well, swipe something. Duh.

Idea 1: A Hint or Weirdness

Put a hint of weirdness in the first sentence and show your lead in action. Swiped from Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore.

“While magic powder was sprinkled on the sidewalk outside, Samuel Hunger moved around his office like a machine, firing out phone calls, checking computer printouts, and barking orders to his secretary.”

Here’s a guy working in an office. But wait! What about that magic powder? The weirdness sucks you in, but then the author makes you wait to find out about it while you learn about the main character for a few pages. Curiosity keeps you hooked and weirdness sets up the events to come.

Idea 2: Curiosity, then Chronology

Just start at the beginning and go from there. Swiped from Inferno, by Niven and Pournelle.

“I thought about being dead. I could remember every silly detail of that silly last performance… Call me Allen Carpentier. It’s the name I wrote under, and someone will remember it.”

The first-person narrator starts with a curious statement about being dead – enough to get your interest – and then goes on to explain how he died. From there, he goes into a chronological reminiscence of his adventures. This book could have started at “Call me Allen Carpentier,” but the first paragraphs about being dead hook your curiosity much more easily.

Idea 3: A Foreword

Start with a brief, intriguing essay on a thematic element, or something. Swiped from Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.

“This is a story about the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hid and deciev, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.”

You’d probably better be a well-established author like Moore before you do this, and not only that, but a writer capable of engaging an audience without immediately resorting to big emotions or derring-do (the two don’t always go together, you may have noticed). By the time he’s finished talking about blue, you’re convinced of its supernatural nature and itching to find out how it figures into a whole big novel. I’ll let you know how this works out when I’m on, like, my twentieth novel.

Idea 4: Action, Jackson… Contrasted with Quiet

Get things moving in a big way and keep them that way. Swiped from “Afraid,” by J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn (who are the same person).

There are a couple of paragraphs in which Konrath sets a quiet fishing scene to begin. These provide contrast for what quickly follows: “The zip of his baitcaster unspooling and the plop of the bait hitting the water were the only sounds he’d heard for the last hour. Until the helicopter exploded.”

What makes this beginning work is the contrast between the fishing and the ‘copter exploding. Just listen to the sounds. There’s a “plop” of bait and then a “kaboom” of helicopter fireball. The action ramps up quickly after this and never lets up.

Idea 5: In Medias Res (“In the midst of things”)

Start somewhere after the actual beginning of the story’s events. You can back up later and fill the reader in on what came before. Swiped from “Letters from Hades” by Jeffery Thomas.

“On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis. It was during a break between classes, though that should not be taken to mean a break for rest.” After the intriguing first sentence, we start witnessing the fun existence of a Hell newbie through the narrator’s eyes. Not much later we find out the narrator is keeping a diary and the discussion of how that came about creates a framework for discussion of days one through four. The immediacy with which you’re taken into the story makes this work, as it does for most other tales begun in medias res.

This is far from an exhaustive list of ways to start a novel, but it’s Boxing Day, the house is quiet, and I’m ready for a beer. So there.

If you have a way of starting a novel that floats your boat, let the world know in a comment. See you next time.

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