A Very Good Place to Start
Remember the lyrics that Maria sang to the children in the Sound of Music?
Let's start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi
That's all find well and good to begin reading and singing, but how in the world does one start a novel? Or better yet, where does one start? And when does one start? I wish I could give you a cut and dried answer to those questions but I cannot. No one can. However, I can do the next best things, and offer a few suggestions that may help.
Every author who has ever written a page of prose knows that feeling of looking at the blank sheet of paper - or the blank computer screen and struggles with, "Where do I begin my story?" A common dilemma to be sure.
What Needs to Be Accomplished?
Let's look at novel openings and determine what needs to be accomplished. Once you know what you want to accomplish, you begin to move in that direction. To simply begin writing Chapter 1, with no thought of what needs to be presented, is to weaken your chances of ever writing a strong, editor-pleasing, reader-pleasing novel. (Read that - one that will sell!)
Before the first line is written, hopefully, you have already decided, among other things:
- Your main character
- Secondary characters
- Point of View
- Verb Tense: past or present tense
- First Person or Second Person
- Character-Driving or Plot-Driven
Avoid Rabbit Trails
The opening is where you set up your reader for what is to come, not only with regard to the plot, but with the structure and tone of the story. Whatever techniques you plan to use throughout, you will be introducing those to the reader to prepare him to accept them in a longer, more complicated form.
Decades ago, a novelist could open the story with a lengthy narrative, descriptions, and winding rabbit trails of plot diversions. That will never work in today's world. The author must immediately grab the attention of the editor and (hopefully) future readers.
A good piece of advice to remember is:
Begin with the day that made a difference.
Keeping this in mind will help to prevent those meandering rabbit trails at the outset.
Avoid Static Scenes
Avoid a static scene in the opening of the novel. Let there be action. If the character is thinking, then nothing is happening.
John leaned back in his office chair planning once again how he was going to ask Mr. Withers for the raise. He promised Hazel that today for sure he would ask. But how? What would he say? And how would he word his request?
This is an example of a scene going nowhere and doing nothing.
John shoved his office chair back from the desk and jumped to his feet. The chair slammed against the credenza behind him. Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, he strode to the window and looked down at the street below. This was it. Now or never! He would ask Mr. Withers for a raise even if it meant losing his job. If he didn't, he could lose Hazel.
Admittedly, we don't have a very compelling plot going here, but at least you can see that in the second example there is action. You want the characters to be moving and doing, not just being.
Avoid Flashbacks in the Opening
Avoid using a flashback immediately after opening. Flashbacks are difficult enough to guide the reader through without throwing one out too early in the game. Give the novel a chance to be solidly launched in the present before whipping back into the past. You cannot create a forward thrust (and carry the reader forward) by going backward. Remember: before the past can contribute to the story, the present must first exist!
Avoid Introducing Too Many Characters
Avoid introducing too many characters in the opening. This is a sure way to lose your reader. Reader feels he needs a notebook and pen to keep track of everyone. Such crowding has the effect of clutter. It weakens the intensity and creates a sense of disorder. Everything stalls as the reader attempts to sort out the material.
Use the opening to name and define a few of the major characters. (Only one if you are using a single viewpoint.) Once they are clearly defined as individuals with distinct personalities, then begin pacing the introduction of the other characters.
Avoid Dream Scenes
Avoid opening with a dream scene. This can create a very awkward opening. Dreams in general are often seen in the work of beginning writers because it provides an easy out. Therefore, dreams should be used with great care no matter where they occur in a story, but should never be used as an opening. This is a great way to retard the opening scene. Always attempt to open with the immediate sense of the novel. A dream sequence will only cause delay.
An Exercise to Try
Try this exercise to broaden your scope of grasping good novel openings. Go to your favorite book store, or the library, and begin randomly reading opening lines of novels. Use the genre that interests you, whether YAs, mysteries, romances, Sci Fi, Westerns, or mainstream fiction. What grabs you and why? Does it make you want to keep reading, and why? Let this be a learning experience. Take good notes!
Just Do It!
The most important thing is to START! Don't put it off. There will never be a perfect opening chapter. Once you get to chapter 6 or 7, you'll know so much more about the story tone, plot direction and character development, that that first chapter will need to be revised anyway.
Hopefully, these few pointers can at least minimize some of the mistakes that beginning writers often make. Now go get busy and write!