Let’s start at the very beginning–a very good place to start–but also the hardest place to start. If you’re like me, the beginning of your novel is the first and the final chapter you write. I’ve rewritten the beginning of my WIP three times already, and I may rewrite it again. The beginning is the most important part of your book. This is the chapter that introduces your readers to your story. It’s how you say hello and how do you do. If done right, the reader will do that one thing we want them to do more than anything else in the world: turn the page. Here’s some advice about what should and shouldn’t be in your first chapter.
What needs to be in the beginning
By beginning, I mean chapter one. A lot of stuff has to be in the first chapter, if not the very first paragraph. When baking bread, if you forget an ingredient, it won’t rise. Similarly, if you miss an ingredient in your first chapter, your story will fall flat. I’m not a very good baker; I once made cookies that tasted like shrimp. When it comes to writing, I always measure my ingredients carefully. So how do you make sure you don’t leave anything out? There are a lot of elements that need to be in the beginning, so to make it easy, they’ve been condensed to this very handy mnemonic device.
The three C’s: context, character, and conflict
- context Give the reader a sense of where they are. I’ve read a lot of books lately where I don’t know where the characters are or even who they are. It’s like trying to read a hand-made map written on a sticky note. If you’re wondering what you should tell your reader, think of the five W’s from elementary school (who, what, when, where, and why). You don’t want your readers to be disoriented, but this doesn’t mean you have to explain everything upfront or else your first paragraph becomes a major infodump. Establish only what the reader needs to know to enjoy the ride. Like a roller coaster, give them a handle bar and a lap belt so they don’t fly out of the cart on the loops and dips.
- character The reader will assume the first POV is the main protagonist. It’s kind of like how baby ducks assume the first thing they see is their mother.This doesn’t mean the first POV is the main character. There are exceptions to the rule, but it is a good idea, when you can, to start with the main character. Once you introduce them, you need your reader to connect with them. Make them care. Many beginner writers start with the least important information: what they look like. The most important information is what they want. Also what are your characters main positive and negative traits. These are important to know because they are the traits that will influence the character’s decisions. They may be his foible, his downfall, what he must overcome, or how he achieves his goal. If those are the only three things your reader learns about your character in the first chapter, that is fine. Physical appearance and back story can be sprinkled in later.
- conflict Conflict is simply what’s at stake. Whatever the main conflict in your story is, it should come out in the first chapter.
The hook I can’t type this without thinking of Mr. Krabs from Spongebob. Many of you have probably heard about hooks, but may not know what they are or how to include them in your opening. To quote Mr. Krabs,
“They dangle down and draw you close with their pleasing shapes and their beguiling colors . . . they grab you by the britches . . . “
I don’t think I could explain it better than that, especially that last part. That’s essentially what you want to do: Grab your reader and not let them go. It’s like snapping your fingers to get someone’s attention. Where do you put the hook? Why, the very first sentence, of course.
Types of hooks
- philosophical statement
how not to start your novel
Recently I reblogged an article about this subject. There are a lot of things you want to avoid, but based on my research, these seem to be the most unpopular beginnings.
- starting with a dream sequence.
- too much exposition and description (info dump)
- starting too slow
- starting with the wrong POV e.g., a one-time POV to introduce the main character
- too little or too much action
I’d like to elaborate on this last one because it’s a pet peeve of mine. Action doesn’t always mean a battle. It just means the characters should be doing something. I’ve read a lot of books where, way too early on, things start exploding, characters are dying, and cars are going through billboards. I don’t even care because I’m not invested in the characters yet. This would be like starting “The Lord of the Rings” with the scene where Frodo is being chased by the Nazgul out of the Shire. Do you know how confusing that would be? Who is Frodo? Why is he being chased? Who are these people with him? What is a Hobbit? Why do I care?
On the flipside, it’s aggravating when a story starts off too slow, like a Jessica Black song. Consider how bored you would be if the author described their character waking up at 7 a.m. in the morning, getting dressed, going downstairs, eating a bowl of cereal, and going to the bus stop. After all this, her biggest conflict is whether to sit in the front or back seat of a car. Very little payoff.
Now you’re ready to tackle your beginning. Grab your readers by the britches and don’t let them go.