How to start your novel

One of the questions I am most often asked is; where do you start when you are writing a book? If we were all back in the classroom and I was Miss Lyons-the-teacher, I would answer with a pert; at the beginning! After all, as we were all told as children, all good stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t they?

The problem is, in the grown-up world, sometimes the best stories start with the end. If you want to draw the reader in there is nothing better than a dramatic introduction, where it looks like our hero is about to lose everything he has worked for, or worse still is teetering on the edge of mortal danger. Cut back to how he got into this mess and off you go. You have the makings of a great read. Except the end is the beginning, the beginning is the middle and the middle is the end.

(Are you keeping up at the back of the classroom?)

It doesn’t always work out like this, but it can and often does. The important bit is: well, that the opening is important. The beginning of a book, the first sentence, paragraph and page is where you pull the reader in and convince them it is worth sticking around to page two and beyond.

As per the example above, dropping the reader into the heart of action of the novel is a great way to get them thinking. Get it right and they’ll buy into the character and be intrigued about what happens next. Incidentally, the same also goes for non-fiction work, which is the genre I most often (although not exclusively) write. No one wants to read a chronological account explaining: I was born here, went to school there, got my first job at…and so on. It is dull. Start with a significant, life changing, event that shows the reader that this is going to be a really interesting read and well worth investing their time on.

Don’t fall into the trap of feeling you have to firstly introduce the main character by telling a chunk of his or her backstory. Your reader hasn’t yet invested enough interest in the book to care one bit about this character’s background, or of secondary characters come to that. At best it’ll bore them and at worst it will see them walk away. Besides, as my film-loving son once told me, once you start going into someone’s backstory in great detail, it’s usually a big clue they are about the exit from the proceedings altogether. Early backstories send out all the wrong messages.

Likewise, don’t dwell on how the protagonist feels about being shot at, or dangled out of a building, or running for their life, or losing everything. Similarly, don’t compare and contrast current events with their previous hum drum existence. We get it. It is out of the ordinary. Apart from the fact that the action sequence will tell the story, so the reader can perfectly imagine it all by themselves, analysis like this slows down the pace. There is no need to explain this sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in, say, an accountant’s daily routine. We know that.

In the same vein, avoid too much description at this stage and definitely lay off any flowery prose. Description is the enemy of pace and action. I also find it looks a little contrived. You know: the (adjective) (adjective) clouds skittered across the (adjective) (adjective) sky, sending patches of (adjective) (adjective) shadows on the (adjective) land below. It may be a beautiful description, but it won’t add anything. Now is the time to just get to the point!

Something else you may like to avoid is launching straight into dialogue. It can be done, indicating that the reader has leapt right into the middle of an important scene, but there is a risk they’ll feel a little lost. They don’t know the people involved and it can be off-putting.

Overall, one of the biggest problems that most writers find is they are so overwhelmed by the pressure to write a great opening, they can barely think, let alone be creative. I get that. I really do. More than fifty books in, I still worry about interesting and arresting openings. I also can’t write well when I am stressed. So, I remind myself that the first draft is just that. I get down what I think is a great opening and then start writing the rest of the book following my planned structure. Then, as the book develops and I become immersed in it myself, I’ll keep going back and tweaking the beginning. It generally ends up entirely differently than when I started, but that is fine.

Your first draft will be that, a first draft and it will be hard work. By all means sweat over it and keep coming back to it. In fact, I would definitely do so. But, if you feel yourself getting tied in knots, write on and come back to it. The more you become engrossed in your book, the clearer it will become.