Finding a Beginning to a Novel

The search engine terms that bring most visitors to my blog are “the origin of the grim reaper” and “the moving finger writes,” but occasionally people come looking for something specific about writing. Lately, it seems, people are wondering how to find the beginning of a novel.

A character’s life, like any life, starts with either a gleam in the parents’ eyes or a birth, depending on your religious and political beliefs. And all stories, taken to their logical conclusion, end in death. Somewhere in that spectrum is the story you want to tell, and since all stories are about change, the novel should begin as close to the moment of change as possible.

The one exception to this rule is that if your story will need flashbacks, you should move the beginning further back on the spectrum in order to show these scenes as they are happening. Flashbacks, no matter how interesting, stop the flow of a story; because they are in the past, readers have no stake in their outcome. Making your flashbacks part of the present gives them an immediacy they would not otherwise have.

Most new writers (and many professionals who should know better) begin with a weather report, long passages of description to set the scene, or even the character’s ancestry. If you feel comfortable starting one of these ways, do so, but keep in mind it is only a temporary construct until you figure out where you are going with your story. As you write, you will find ways of inserting the necessary information elsewhere in the book, and will be able to delete it from the beginning of your novel. Despite what you might think, readers do not need to know who your character is before you begin the tale. They need to be thrust into the story so that they can find out for themselves who your character is.

So, start your novel with something happening, with a moment of potential drama, with a conversation. Many books begin with violence, which is a sure way of catching readers’ interest. At the very least, they will find it more exciting than a weather report or a description of your extraterrestrial world. And so will you. The more excited you are about the story you are writing, the easier it will be for you to write. Because, as you will find out, beginning a novel is simple; finishing it is an entirely different matter.

5 Responses to “Finding a Beginning to a Novel”

  1. sonjanitschke Says:

    What do you think of Stephen King’s use of flashback in The Gunslinger?

  2. Bertram Says:

    I haven’t read it, but I’ll put it on my reading list and get back to you on that. Normally I wouldn’t even consider reading it but, surprisingly, I just finished Duma Key. Read the whole thing. He usually loses me about halfway through.

  3. sonjanitschke Says:

    Stephen King is hit and miss for me too. I’m finding the Gunslinger to be disappointing over all…but so many people seem to love it so.

  4. nomananisland Says:

    Okay, the Gunslinger (written when he was in college) is not good writing. But the Dark Tower series itself, which the Gunslinger begins, is amazing. Book Four, Wizard and Glass, may be my favourite novel. At times the series sucks, at times it is absolutely stunning. But you need to read the whole thing, to see both. Because the amazing moments are worth the moments that suck.

    Flashbacks can be overdone, or placed badly. But sometimes they improve the flow of the story: ways to use them well are to have a character remembering something that is directly relevant to a current moment in a story, but otherwise wouldn’t be a part of it. That way the short flashback contributes to flow, instead of slowing it down, because it provides necessary details without bogging down.

    For example, in the Gunslinger, he tells the boy Jake about how he became a gunslinger, by passing a test. You can’t start the story in his childhood and go forward from there, because 99% of the details aren’t part of the story. You’d waste time on his adolescence, his early adulthood, and then finally, eventually get around to the story itself: his quest for the dark tower, chasing the man in black, and meeting Jake.

    You’d have three whole new novels (because the Tower is a 7 book series) before the story even started, so when Jake asked about his childhood, the text would probably say something like “So the gunslinger spent that evening round the campfire telling Jake about his childhood. The next morning, they continued after the man in black.”

    That’s boring and irrelevant, and I’ve just read three extra books to get there. Plus, you don’t know how much Jake learned. So, we do a neat little flashback to tell the one relevant piece of history, directly tied to Jake’s current experience, and move on back to the quest.

    I’m defensive of flashbacks because I think they’re a great way to include necessary information without including whole huge sections of unnecessary text. If a character had two important things happen when he was seven years old, and the rest of the story happens when he’s thirty-five, you only need to include those two events. And it’s not always best to do it in a prologue, because that might seem irrelevant if the part of the character’s life that is relevant to those events isn’t revealed until thirty chapters later. Readers will be bored with an unconnected prologue, and not remember why it’s relevant when it finally comes up. Using a flashback in chapter thirty instead makes it immediate.

    Me personally, I use flashbacks in No Man an Island because, while it’s out of chronology, out of order for time, they are in order for telling the story. They give the information you need when you need it, and connect moments across time that are relevant to each other. Put the same scene in a different place, and you’ll never realize why it’s related to another one years/chapters later.

    The thing in writing is not to NEVER do something, it’s to use it judiciously and with care, for a purpose. Not just as a gimmick. Anything can be used well, and anything can be used badly. But you have to try using something to find out its best use.

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I started Heart of Hythea with action in chapter 1, and went from there. Later, about chapter 5, I had two characters reminiscing about an important event that happened when they were children. I decided it was too important to their relationship to be relegated to discussion, so I wrote a new chapter 1 dealing directly with the event. Then I fast forwarded ten years to the beginning of chapter 2, which was the old chapter 1. I think it worked pretty well.

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