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Friday, June 21

4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Setting up a novel baffles many writers, but it’s easier when you focus on what a beginning needs to do.

On Wednesday, I talked about what the word setup actually meant in fiction and why so many writers had trouble with it. Today, I’m going to focus specifically on ways to establish (good setup) your novel’s beginning without falling prey to bad setup.

When you’re setting up a story, what you’re really doing is establishing the premise of the story and where the plot is going to go. It’s part of the story, not something done before readers get to the story. It’s not dumping backstory, though there might be a little backstory in there.

A good beginning contains and conveys all the critical elements required to understand the premise, the story, the plot, and why the protagonist is willing to get involved. But it also needs to do it in such a way that piques readers curiosity and makes them interested to know more.

This is a lot to accomplish in a fairly short time, which is why beginnings are tough for many writers.

Before we dive into specifics, let me clarify what I mean by “the beginning.”

The beginning of a novel can refer to the first page, the first scene, the first chapter, the first major plot point, or even the first act. I’m referring to the broader act one chunk, with more focus on page one to the inciting event—which is typically found somewhere between page one and page thirty-to-fifty (depending on the size of the novel).

Getting to the inciting event is where most of the trouble lies, since once writers hit that point, the story has a solid plot path to follow. It’s getting from page one to there that’s tricky.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Inciting Event)

Ways to Establish the Premise and “Setup” a Story


Think of the beginning of a novel as the place where you help readers understand the kind of novel they’re about to read, and teach them the specifics of that novel is particular. For example:
  • A romance, between an older woman and a younger man
  • A fantasy, about a girl who can shift pain to heal
  • A thriller, about an ex-Marine who helps people no one else will help
Each of these types of stories has tropes and reader expectations that say “this is X type of book.”
  • The romance will show scenes with the older woman and the younger man and show how they’re unhappy, drop hints about how they’d be happy together, and show why they aren’t getting together just yet.
  • The fantasy will show scenes of the girl shifting pain and using it to heal, why this is a bad thing, and drop hints of how this might actually be a good thing for her or others in the long run.
  • The thriller will show the ex-Marine exhibiting his skills, how he finds the people he’s going to help, and what the overall problem is he needs to fix.
Note the word “show” in all of these. We’re establishing, not explaining all of this information. We’ll see the older woman being attracted to the younger man and think, “Nah, too young for me.” We’ll see the girl use her pain-shifting ability in a way that’s dangerous. We’ll see the ex-Marine get pulled into a problem and have to decide if he’s going to help or walk away.

This is the first and most vital part of “setting up” a novel.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Setup and Setup)

4 Things Every Novel Beginning Needs to Do


To get from page one to the inciting event, and properly setup the beginning, you’ll want to:

Show an interesting situation unfolding

This is actually where a lot of beginnings fail, because writers are so focused on explaining how the story got to this point, they forget that readers are looking for an actual story.

Readers want a character in an interesting situation, usually facing some type of problem. It might be dire with a life in danger, it might be the start of a new life they aren’t sure they can handle, it might be a funny situation that creates an intriguing opportunity.

Whatever it is, it’s characters engaged in something that matters, and something that will appeal to readers.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes)

Show the story issues in action

The novel is going to be about something, and you’ll address at least one of those issue in the beginning. The core conflict starts with the inciting event, even if there are a lot of steps between that moment and the climax. But the inciting event pulls the protagonist on the path of the plot, and that plot leads to the ending (climax) of the novel.

You’ll also address and character arc growth by showing the protagonist(s) flaws, weaknesses, or hangups keeping them from being happy or achieving their goal. Readers will see these flaws and hangups in action, even if it’s two characters talking, such as, “So what if he’s ten years younger? You could use a rebound guy.”

(Here’s more on 5 Common Problems With Beginnings)

Show the story or world mechanics in action

Although this is critical for genre fiction, where the setting is not the modern real world, and there’s usually magic or science readers need to learn about, it also holds true for mainstream fiction.

If there’s magic, show characters using it. If there’s science, show how that science affects the world. If it’s a different time period, show the rules and customs of that era. If it’s set in our world, show what normal is for these characters.

Because “showing what’s normal” is what you’re really doing, even if it’s in a fantasy land with dragons and faeries. This is how the world works, and this is what these characters experience every day.

(Here’s more on Wait...What? Putting Things in the Proper Context)

Plant story questions

This is the other place many beginnings fail at. Writers are too busy answering questions readers haven’t even asked, they forget that learning answers to intriguing questions is why they’re reading in the first place.

While you don’t want readers confused by your beginning, you do want them to wonder about things and make them curious to see how the issues you’ve created work out. Such as, will the older woman and younger man get together? How will they work out their differences? Will the pain-shifting girl get caught? What will happen when the bad guys find her? Will the ex-Marine be able to help? Why are these seemingly innocent people in trouble?

Story questions are the breadcrumbs of the plot. One leads to another, then another, and as you answer one, you pose one more and keep readers wanting to know what happens next and why.

(Here’s more on Leave the Breadcrumbs Behind: Are You Asking -- and Answering -- the Right Story Questions?)

By the end of the beginning, readers should be fully on board with the world, problems, and issues of these characters. Just as the protagonist is ready to make that all-important choice to pursue the plot, so is the reader.

Do you struggle with beginnings? Do you have trouble setting up your novel? What tips would you offer?

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 ShifterBlue 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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