Friday, October 08, 2021

NaNoWriMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Beginning

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Many writers know what they want to write about, but have no idea where to start.

For many, the beginning of a novel is the hardest part. Getting the right opening scene, finding the right inciting event, even figuring out the perfect first sentence can keep you from getting anywhere at all. But don't worry.  Beginnings aren't as scary as they appear.

In many ways, they're the easier part, since you probably already know the most critical aspects of your story--the protagonist, the goal, the conflict, and the setting.

If you're not yet sure on what to put in your novel's beginning, let's take a closer peek at what goes into a beginning.

I find it helpful to breakdown the novel into parts. This makes it easier to focus on the part you're working on. 

If you're writing a 50,000-word novel (even if there are plans to flesh it out after the first rough draft), your opening is going to run about 12,500 words, or roughly 25% of the book. If you're doing a half novel, you'll be around 25,000 words, maybe fewer if your target word count is under 100,000 words. And bear in mind these are all general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

Within this opening you’ll find:

1. A likable or compelling protagonist
2. An interesting initial problem to solve
3. What life is like for the protagonist
4. The introduction of the other major characters in the novel
5. The inciting event
6. The beginning’s crisis that triggers the protagonist to act toward resolving the core conflict of the novel

If you like to outline, you might break down your 12,500 words into chapters to get a feel for pacing and structure. To hit your 50,000-word mark, you’ll need to write 1667 words a day, so let’s say you’re aiming for a chapter a day. That would give you 30 chapters at the end of the month, a reasonable amount for your average 60-80,000 novel. Adjust accordingly to fit your own novel based on what your typical chapter length is.

In those first seven to eight chapters (or however many you use), you’ll want to accomplish everything on the above list (and then some).

There’s a good chance the beginning of the novel will unfold roughly like this:

Opening scene – introduction of protagonist – introduction of world and setting – introduction of initial problem (not necessarily the core conflict or inciting event, but connected in some way) – protagonist attempts to solve initial problem – something goes wrong – protagonist reacts and makes a decision or is dragged into a situation (frequently the inciting event) – protagonist involves/meets others while trying to solve/deal with the initial problem and subsequent issues – protagonist discovers problem is much bigger than expected and/or learns a huge secret that will determine their actions – protagonist decides to act. (end of act one)

Let’s look a little closer at that overview:

Opening Scene 

This is the first thing your reader will discover about your book, your protagonist, and your world. Great first lines are important, but they can bog you down if you’re trying to craft the perfect one. For NaNo, don’t worry about it. (Or start working on it now so you’re all set come November 1st). You can check off numbers 1-3 in your opening scene alone. Look for a scene that A) fits the world and shows what life is like for your protagonist, B) shows the protagonist exhibiting some likable or compelling trait, and C) puts the protagonist in a situation just before they need to act. Acting (as well as action) is critical here, as you want your protagonist to be driving the story, not just having stuff happen to them.

Introduction of the protagonist 

Odds are your opening scene will introduce your protagonist, but if not, then you’ll have a scene where they are introduced. If there’s something critical to their character the reader needs to know, this is a great place to put it.

Introduction of world and setting 

The opening chapters are where you’ll define the world for your readers. A lot of the critical world building and setting will be in that first chapter. Even if your world is downtown Manhattan, you’ll be showing readers downtown Manhattan. Think about how your protagonist sees this world when you’re wondering what details to use. There’s a good chance you’ll start hinting at or stating outright your theme here as well. Setting is also a common place to set the tone for your story. However you choose to write it, make sure you're using good setup to lay the groundwork for the novel, not bad setup where you're just telling readers "stuff they need to know" before they get to the good parts.

Introduction of initial problem 

When the story opens, something is happening--there's some kind of problem the protagonist is facing. It doesn’t have to be high drama or fast-paced action, but there should be a sense that something is in the works and going on. This is a good spot to show your world and how your protagonist fits into it, because your opening problem doesn’t have to be part of your core conflict. It can be something inherent to the world your protagonist lives in that somehow gets them to that inciting event and/or core conflict. Being chased by monster. Dodging a nasty boss. Arguing with your ex-spouse. Whatever is a typical issue for your protagonist.

Protagonist attempts to solve initial problem 

This is going to be the first goal your protagonist tries to solve and it gets the novel started with something to hook readers (beware of making these goals too vague--it's often hard to plot with those). There’s also a good chance this problem will lead to the inciting event or the first major crisis (if it didn't contain the inciting event). Look for ways to set your protagonist on the plot path, using this problem as a bridge to get to the rest of your story.

Something goes wrong 

If the problem is solved without hassle, it’s probably not the right problem to open your novel with. Goals, conflicts and stakes are what drives your story forward, so look at every scene as a stepping stone to the next part of the plot. What goes wrong for your protagonist when they try to solve that first problem? Why does it matter? And remember, it doesn’t have to be action. It can be quiet if your story calls for it. As long as there’s a hook to keep readers reading.

Protagonist reacts and makes a decision 

Here’s your protagonist’s goal for the next part. Stuff happens to them and they do something about it. What they do will move you to your next scene. Wash, rinse repeat. This is a great time to introduce your primary character arc and show how the external goal is going to conflict with the protagonist’s internal desires. You might even let that internal issue be the thing that causes them to fail when they hit the first major crisis.

Protagonist involves/meets others while trying to solve/deal with the initial problem and subsequent issues 

Your major secondary characters will show up in the beginning, and the antagonist (or the effects of the antagonist) will at least be mentioned, even if we don’t see them. If your protagonist doesn’t know your antagonist, they'll probably at least know what problem that antagonist is putting in their path. There will be hints of where the bad guy is going to come from. Subplots will likely appear during this time that cause conflict between what the protagonist needs to do and what they want to do.

Protagonist discovers problem is much bigger than expected and/or learns a huge secret that will determine their actions 

This will be the start of the beginning’s end, likely the final chapter before we close on the first major crisis. The protagonist is trying to solve whatever problems you’ve thrown at them, and they’ll either cause something big to happen, or discover something big is happening. Even if they don’t know for sure what it is, they’ll take the first step toward knowing there is a problem—and a bad one. Your stakes will likely go up here as well.

Protagonist decides to act in a big way 

What they do next determines how you’ll start the middle. This will be a goal that puts your protagonist on the path to the core conflict, not a subplot. It’ll pose a question of some type for the reader (not always a literal question, but one they can wonder about, like, “will they get the girl back?” or “can they build that spaceship in time?”) This goal will be a major part of the middle’s beginning.

Next, we’ll do an overview of the middle of the novel.

Here are links to the full series, and a few extras:
Anything not covered here you have questions about? What are some of your goals for your novel’s beginning? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis 
  • And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I love how you're analyzing the three ARCs of the story to get us organized. Thanks so much.

  2. The conflict for my NaNoWriMo novel is mundane (even though the world is not): The protagonist is hungry, because he spend all his money on something reckless instead of buying enough food. He breaks into a car in order to find something to barter for food. Unfortunately, the owner comes around, and it turns out the owner is a part of a crime organization.

    Although what causes the inciting incident saves the protagonist from loosing a limb (and gives him the MacGuffin), he is run out of town at the end of Act I because of what he did at the very beginning.

  3. This is a great breakdown - thanks so much!!!

  4. I love these posts, Janice. I'm not doing Nano, but I'm in the thick of drafting my new book and this is such helpful information. I'm using your posts like a checklist.

    Thanks for all the great info.


  5. Sweet Georgia Brown, Janice! This post is amazing! :D It's good for NaNo as well as starting a book normally.

    Two questions:
    Do you keep these items in the back of your mind or do you fill out a list before you start a novel with how you're introducing the world, how you're introducing the protagonist, etc?

    I would have a hard time writing a scene from scratch if I was also worrying about these items. But, before I write a novel I often think about these things and see what comes from writing the scene. Then, if something major is missing, I can edit it into the scene.

    You talk about having an initial problem to solve, but what if that problem doesn't crop up until a few scenes into the book? How do you find sufficient conflict to compel the reader to when the problem starts, without it feeling like just boring set up?

    I can't cut straight to the issue, because it's necessary to set stuff up now before the problem presents itself. For my book, it's zombies. A few scenes into the book, zombies attack. There's going to be a large focus on staying alive and figuring out what's going on, so I need to get some key information tucked into those opening scenes prior to the zombies. So I need a tiny conflict, but not one that would require a lot of set up or resolving since the characters are about to be besieged by the walking dead. :D

    Thanks again for the awesome post. This is a treasure trove of information!

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  7. Once again, my typing goes wonky.

    I only have one goal for my nano novel's beginning, on second thought, make that two-

    1. Getting to the point BEFORE the end of page 1.

    2. Rising above the "So what?" stigma and getting future readers to care quickly.

    Who knew a two word question can cause so much anguish.

    At least for the ones it's being told to...(Sigh)

    I know the main point is to just finish something, and that's still my top priority, but these sticking points hold me back for months, and if I don't improve here, I'll just repeat the same mistakes.

    Which means I'll have yet another story with unclear stakes (But they do EXIST!) written in a style that works against me instead of for me.

    Wish me luck, Janice, I'm really going to need it for this part alone. I know you and many others struggle more with the middle, but I really get anal about beginnings.

    No one's going to get to the middle if their bored/unfairly confused at the start. Not particularly upset when I say this, just stating facts I know are true for me, and perhaps others.

    Take care All,

  8. Natalie, most welcome. I tried to be a bit looser since not everyone uses the three act structure, but every story will have a beginning, middle and ending :)

    CO, sounds like a great opening problem to bridge into your core conflict.

    Kelly and Nancy, thanks!

    Funny, good to hear it. I'd hoped even non-NaNo folks would benefit.

    Elizabeth, thanks! I keep them in my head for the most part, though I do go back after the first draft is done to make sure I've hit on everything. Some of the things make it into my outline if it's plot related.

    Something is going on at the start of your book. It might not have anything to do with the core conflict of the novel, but it's more than just your protag sitting there description the room she's in. (I hope!) Your protag will have a goal of some type, and hopefully a fear (stakes) to go with it. It doesn't have to be major as long as it's something the reader will be curious about.

    Mmmm zombies. For that, odds are you'll have your protag doing whatever it is they do, though probably having a bad day of some type. Or a good day actually, if thing suddenly go wrong later. I can see that working. Build anticipation for the reader in some way to move the story along.

    Taurean, those are good goals. From our conversations in the past, your stakes have often been more thematic than plot-driven. (which is probably why it's hard to satisfy that "so what?" question) You might try looking for more external stakes to go along with the internal ones. Keep the same theme and idea, but give them a slightly larger scale.

    Good luck!

  9. Great post as always, Janice.

    I have a question that's completely unrelated to the core point of what you're saying, if you don't mind.

    You mention that writing a chapter a day may be a good idea, and that 30 chapters in a 60K - 80K book is "a reasonable amount". That gives you an average chapter length of 2000 - 2700 words, or 8 to 11 pages.

    I'm just curious about whether this is some kind of general standard for chapter length, or whether chapter length is completely arbitrary and changes depending on book, author, genre, etc. The chapters in my WIP are, on average, 4000 - 5000 words (16 - 20 pages) long. Does that matter? Do readers prefer shorter chapters? Is it all completely irrelevant if the story keeps on trucking?

  10. Janice: Thanks for the feedback. You're right: the character is at Dragon*Con prior to ZOMG Zombies! and feeling crappy despite her desire to have some fun. So I can play that up and even get a little bit of foreshadowing going. That's perfect. Thanks!

  11. @Jo Eberhardt: I say it doesn't really matter. The chapters I write range from 3-8 pages.

    However, you may need some shorter chapters every once and a while to break things up. It's good to have a wide range for pacing reasons.

  12. Jo, nope there is no standard size for a chapter. Some folks write short, some long, so if you do 4-5K, adjust your outline accordingly. My suggestion was just for those who were looking for some guidelines to work in.

    Chapter length helps with pacing, and the shorter the faster in most cases. But if you have scene breaks or just really tight and well-paced long chapters readers don't even notice what size they are. How the story is trucking along IS what matters most.

    I aim my own chapters for 2500 words, but I'll go as low as 1500 and as high as 3500 if the chapter needs it. If it ends up being outside that range I take a closer look to see if there's an issue. But even with this general size, I still have chapters that fall out of this range when they're done. I think the first chapter of Shifter ended up 4100 or something, broken in to two scenes. But I like them to be similar in size for pacing reasons. Too wide a difference bugs me as a reader, though tastes vary on that.

    Elizabeth, you're welcome!

  13. Thanks for the answer, that's really helpful.

    I'd never considered chapter size in regards to novel pacing. Something else to wander off and consider...

  14. It might not work for everyone, but it helps me a lot with mine. I keep an eye on my word count a I write so I can add or hurry up as needed.

  15. This is very helpful, thank you!

  16. This may be the single best explanation I've seen. You include everything that needs to be interwoven in a way that even I think I might be able to make sense of! I hope you're going to do this for middles and ends too! And since I'm clearly challenged in this area, I would love an example to illuminate each point as you did in the introduction of the initial problem!

  17. Candace, most welcome!

    Susanna, thanks! My outline template is a lot like this. Basic concepts, then I fill in the blanks. And yeppers, I'll have middles and endings this week.

  18. Most welcome! Final installment tomorrow :)

  19. Coming in late here, but great suggestions on structure. I have six books out, but am always learning.

    1. Me too. There's always things to learn with writing, even the stuff we know cold. I never know when a fantastic tip to make my process smoother will appear.