Why You’re Starting Your Novel in the Wrong Place

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Does your book start at the most interesting point in your character’s life? It should. 

The number one problem I see with sample material, and even client material sometimes, is that the book doesn’t start in the right place. If you are starting with the beginning of the day (waking up or eating breakfast) I don’t trust it’s starting in the right place. If you take 50 pages to introduce the conflict there is no way you’re starting in the right place.

HOW TO START YOUR NOVEL IN THE RIGHT PLACE:

  1. At the end, go back and rewrite your beginning. There is no way by the end of your novel you should have the same opening when you started the draft. Characters change, plot trajectories change. You don’t know what your novel is going to fully become until it’s over. So why keep the same opening? Revise to make sure it is the proper opening for the novel it became.
  2. We don’t need a car crash, but we do need a secret. “Starting with action” is often misconstrued as starting with a bomb going off. For some genres that works, for many it doesn’t and shouldn’t! What we do need to start with is knowing that your character has a secret. Action can be many things, but no matter what we need to know something big is coming. We can’t be reading about a normal day in your characters’ lives.
  3. Are you introducing too many people? We should meet the main character on page one and maybe one or two others–but that is it. Introducing too many characters is very confusing to the reader. We don’t know who’s who yet. And we don’t know who to care about. Establishing a bond between main character and reader starts on page one.
  4. Alternately, information dumping won’t win us over either. Want us to know everything right off the bat? Guess what…we don’t want to know everything on page one. Or else what are we reading about?! Give the reader some credit and let them connect the dots. Trusting that your reader is smart will win them over too.
  5. How do we know this is a novel? Something happens. As I said at the top: your book should start at the most interesting point in your character’s life. Or else why are we reading about them? What is the moment when everything changes? Why? And why does the reader care to find out what happened? These seem like simple questions but they’re the crux of getting readers’ invested in your characters from the moment we meet them.

Q: What do you worry about with your beginnings?

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18 thoughts on “Why You’re Starting Your Novel in the Wrong Place

  1. Carly, thanks for another excellent post. I was running a checklist in my head for my current manuscript as I scanned your points and was relieved to find myself in compliance! I once workshopped with novelist Tim O’Brien who stressed that early on there needs to be plenty of “forward tilt” and I’ve tried to follow that advice as well. One additional thing to keep in mind about starting a novel is the strength of the opening sentence/paragraph. The late John Cheever was a master at writing provocative, compelling openings…his Collected Stories, published in 1978, has many excellent examples. Among my favorites are these: “This is being written aboard the S.S. Augustus, three days at sea. My suitcase is full of peanut butter, and I am a fugitive from the suburbs of all large cities.” (“The Trouble of Marcie Flint”)…”The first time I robbed Tiffany’s, it was raining.” (“Montraldo”)…”The subject today will be the metaphysics of obesity, and I am the belly of a man named Lawrence Farnsworth.” (“Three Stories”)

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  2. You have put your finger on the issue with which I am currently struggling. I am getting mixed opinions from critique partners and writing group friends regarding where to place a particular chapter. What I originally wrote as chapter 1 is set between the first, dramatic event that changed the course of my MC’s life and the culminating event where he must repay a considerable debt to a powerful person. The original chapter 1 introduces the MC and an important secondary character. It ends on a hook that leads back in time to the MC’s early life. From there, the story moves forward chronologically until we are back in the setting of the original chapter 1 and events that flow forward from there. My problem is that, while I want to avoid of the appearance of having a dreaded-and-to-be-avoided-on-penalty-of-death prologue, I like the chapter in the number 1 location. I like how it leads into the early life events and then ultimately to future life events. Of course, the chapter can be revised and placed in simple chronological sequence, but it loses something in the transposition. As a reader, prologues and settings like this have never bothered me and do not keep me from reading a book. In fact, I have always enjoyed having a story set up in this manner. Am I just a weird, out-of-date reader? Am I completely of base with the placement of my chapter? I need an expert opinion!

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    1. Yes, prologues should be avoided! However, there are exceptions to every rule. I say: make sure you do what’s right for the story. And you know best. Make sure whatever you do is accessible and readable; enjoyable and satisfying.

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  3. I think the main thing is to avoid a boring or sluggish start, it just sets such a bad tone. Im not sure why people make that mistake, even in short stories, it seems inherently obvious to begin with some kind of bang regardless of how loud it is.
    Good advice.

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  4. Thanks for another great post here Carly. Couldn’t agree more! Especially about starting with a secret of some sort. Les Edgerton, a terrific crime fiction author I follow, states the same kind of thing, that calls it an “inciting incident.”
    And yeah, it doesn’t have to be a big bang, just something that lets the reader in on a problem the character has that needs solving. And I really like your advice of going back and rewriting your beginning after you’re done. beginning of my crime fiction novel has changed drastically since my early drafts.

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  5. Everyone has a secret. Secrets pull a reader into the text. And secrets come from character interactions. So seeing the MC in his or her world can start the unraveling of the secret on page one. Great advice, as always.

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  6. i often start too soon. I’ll write out my novel and go back to find that the 1st chapter is necessary. It’s good to start where you can to get a story going, especially knowing you can always cut scenes later.

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  7. This is one of the most helpful craft posts I’ve seen. Beginnings are harder than endings to nail, imho.

    What do I worry about with my beginnings? In a first draft my beginning will haunt me. It’s generally expositional and boring because I’m telling myself the story and trying to force a voice. On average I rewrite my beginning somewhere between twenty and fifty times. And somewhere between the second and third draft I do the major flip. Find a chapter fifty pages in that’s really the beginning, or find a different character to begin the story.

    I’ve never heard anyone say, simply: start at the most interesting point in the character’s life. Super smart!

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  8. I’ve always found the process of writing an opening a fascinating and, at the same time, stressful experience.

    The one thing I worry about beyond all else is extensive exposition in the opening chapters. Trying to find the balance of introducing characters, and sometimes a whole new world, to the point that a reader can understand and empathise with them while avoiding the fallback into a page of exposition and world building is always a challenge.

    I already know the character, to an extent, and the world they live in. Being able to project this subtly to a reader without hand-holding through an explanation is a real skill and one that I am still working to develop.

    I read the idea somewhere that on completing a book, an author should go back and remove the entire first chapter. Merely re-writing the second chapter. I’ve yet to take it to that extreme but I can certainly see the appeal.

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