The opening of a book is one of the most important aspects of a story. This is what will pull readers in, what will grip them and convince them to keep reading. A lot of craft goes into the start of a novel. In this article, we’re going to focus on when to start.
A brief caveat: don’t worry about this too much in your first draft. You may well discover you’ve started in the wrong spot as you learn more about your characters and story, but none of the writing will be wasted. Everything you put on the page, even the stuff that gets cut, adds to your understanding of your story and allows you to infuse the tale with richness and multiple dimensions.
So when do you start your novel?
Well, you start at the beginning of your story. Easier said than done, right? When is the beginning exactly? Conventional wisdom says the start is the day the protagonist’s life changes, the day their normal life gets turned on its head.
But if you’ve developed multi-layered, complex characters, they’re likely to have had several experiences that changed their lives, for better or worse--though, since this is fiction and fiction is all about conflict, usually for the worse.
Maybe your hero lost his parents in a terrible accident when he was 15. Is that the start of his story? Or does his story start when he turns 17 and discovers there’s more to his parents’ death than he thought? Does your story start at the end of the world? Or does it start on a “normal” post-apocalyptic day, when something else life-changing happens to your main character? Is it the day your hero and heroine meet? Or farther into their relationship when something changes in the status quo?
The type of story you’re telling will play heavily into the choices you make here. A coming-of-age fantasy novel might start when the 12 year old heroine first meets the horse that changes her destiny. But if the story is a romance, you will probably start the day she meets the hero, or the day her relationship with the hero is pushed into a new realm.
Building a good, strong character means you create an interesting backstory for them. But a novel doesn’t start in the backstory. It has to start at the moment things change in relation to the current plot. Are you telling a coming-of-age story, an action-adventure, a grown-up romance? Knowing this going in will help you decide the best starting point.
To complicate your decision, however, some writing instructors will say you should show your character in their normal life just before the change takes place so readers will get to know them and like them before all hell breaks loose. Others will say you should jump right into the action to hook readers and let them get to know the characters as they go.
Honestly, you can use either of these techniques and have a successful opening. But there is a trick to using each.
If you start with a normal day in the life of your character, you can’t just show them taking a shower, getting dressed, going off to work as they might any old day. There’s no tension in this and no real reason for readers to keep reading. On the other hand, infusing the “normal” opening with some level of tension will keep a reader’s attention long enough to get to the dramatic life-changing event.
For example, as your heroine is getting ready, if she is thinking about the huge mistake she made at work the day before and contemplating the meeting she has to have with her boss as soon as she gets into the office, the “getting ready for a normal day” opening has tension. Then you can open that time rift, throw her into the past and into the arms of the Highland warrior who’s going to change her life forever. Readers will be worried about your heroine getting fired long enough to get to the point where her life really changes and the story really begins.
On the other hand, you might decide it’s better for your story to open in the middle of the action. This is often put forward as the best way to start a modern fiction story, though there are some who will argue the point. If this is how you feel your story will be best served, you do encounter the issue of character sympathy. Opening in the middle of the action, means readers haven’t had time to get to know your heroine yet and therefore might not care enough about what happens to her to keep reading.
To make this opening successful, you have to build in ways to reveal your main character as sympathetic from the very start. You have to give readers a snapshot of their character and why they should be worried about the outcome of your opening action.
A random man running away from gun-toting thugs could be anyone. Maybe he’s just as rotten as the guys chasing him. Why do we care if he survives the chase? If you introduce an aspect of his character--through the action--to make him sympathetic, you give readers that reason to care.
Perhaps your running man sees a family with kids coming into view and knows if the thugs see them, they’ll kill the family. So your hero leads the thugs in a different direction, even though it’s more dangerous for him, in order to keep the family safe. This reveals a lot about your hero and gives readers the sympathy for him they need to keep reading and to care if the thugs catch him or not.
The way a book starts is always going to be a very personal choice, depending entirely on the genre and the type of story being told. Just keep in mind three points. First, the opening needs to start when this story starts--not in the backstory. Second, if you jump into action from the first sentence, you need to show your character’s personality fast. And finally, if you start by showing a “normal” day, you need to fill it with tension, then introduce the life-changing moment quickly.
Making sure the opening of the book is both tense and character revealing will ensure readers stick with you past the first few pages. Then give them a truly plot-worthy upheaval in your main character’s life and they will read to the very end. ♥