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.