Monday, October 05, 2020

Struggling to Start Your Novel? Here's What Makes a Good Beginning

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong beginning does more than simply start the story.

Writers spend a lot of energy on the “beginning” of their novel, but what they’re really focusing on is the opening. They agonize over the first line, the first page, the first scene, and the first chapter.

Which is all good, as every one of those is important, but they ignore the bigger picture—a strong beginning covers more than the opening line or the opening scene. It’s the entire setup for the novel, and getting the beginning right positions the novel to unfold the way they envision it.

Or as my girl Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”

I believe this wholeheartedly. Starting strong makes it a whole lot easier to finish strong. The whole beginning establishes what the middle will cover, and sets the expectations for the ending.

Get the beginning wrong, and the novel will probably go off the rails by the midpoint. So it’s important to get it right, even if it takes a few drafts to get there.

When you understand what makes a good beginning, you have the tools to write a great beginning.

Writers often fail with beginnings because we treat them like an explanation of the story, not the start of the story. We dump backstory and history before we ever introduce a character with a problem, we’re unclear about who is doing what and why, we take too long to get to the point—or we move too fast and skip the details readers actually need to understand the story. The beginning is just a preface, and we forget to show the actual story until it’s too late.

There are plenty of reasons why a beginning doesn’t work, but let’s look at what makes a good beginning. 

A good beginning is like a shiny object in the grass.

If you remember nothing else about beginnings remember this—the goal of a beginning is make readers curious enough to want to read the book. It piques the reader’s curiosity and makes them eager to turn the page and see where the story goes.

This mostly refers the opening, but it holds true for the entire beginning, because the beginning takes readers from the first page to the first major plot point. This turning point is where the meat of the plot and story starts, and if you haven’t grabbed a reader by now, odds are they won’t stay with the book.

If you grab a reader’s attention and convince them to read to the middle, you have done your job and crafted a good beginning.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel) 

A good beginning gives you people worth paying attention to.

Characters are what makes a story a story. Readers don't always have to like the protagonist, but they'll at least be intrigued enough by them to want to hear their story. Likeable or compelling, something about the protagonist(s) and the other characters encourage you to hang out with them for a while.

It also gives readers a good look at the characters--especially the protagonist--to understand why this problem matters and how they might resolve it. The protagonist and who they are colors how they'll solve their problem, and that can enhance how the entire novel unfolds. Great characters make readers love them and thus, invest more in the story.    

A compelling character presents a problem readers want to see resolved. 

(Here’s more on Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart) 

A good beginning digs its hooks into your heart and brain.

All the important elements of a story are introduced in the beginning—the protagonist, the main characters, the setting, the conflict, the goals, the stakes, the motivations, the world, and the themes. Story questions are asked, and readers want to know the answers for either an emotional reason (they care) or an intellectual one (they’re curious). Hopefully both.

If all of these elements are set up correctly, then by the time readers get to the end of the beginning, they’re fully invested in seeing this problem through the to end of the novel. They'll need to know how this story will turn out, they'll want to know if their guesses and assumptions are right, and they'll care what happens to the characters

To compel readers to keep reading, hook their hearts, their brains, or both.

(Here’s more on What Makes Your Protagonist Heroic) 

A good beginning whisks you away to places unknown.

The beginning is where you establish the setting and world of the story. If it’s a created world with magic or advanced sciences, the rules and how the world works will be shown and explained (but in a good way). If it’s our real world, you’ll transport the flavors and cultures of that location to the page. It’s just as important to make readers feel as if they’re visiting Akron, Ohio as it is to make them feel a part of Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away.

But the beginning is also introducing readers to your protagonist’s world as well. Their Akron is different someone else’s Akron, because their experiences have shaped who they are and color how they feel about their world. The character who loves their small hometown will describe and exist within it much differently than a character who longs to leave the first chance they get.

And a setting that feels real and explorable is one readers will happily lose themselves in.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Setting and World Building) 

A good beginning stirs up trouble with no idea how to fix things.

Before your protagonist can solve the novel’s problem, they have to discover there is a problem. The entire beginning lures (or shoves) the protagonist toward the core conflict, dangles chances to walk away in front of their face, and ultimately forces them to make the decision to step onto the plot path that drives the rest of the novel.

This is a critical part of a good beginning. Readers need to know what the book is about and where it’s going, even if there’s a lot still to discover. But they can see a problem that must be resolved, and they know that problem is going to get worse, and lead somewhere fun.

By the end of the beginning, the protagonist is fully entangled in the plot—whether they like it or not.

(Here’s more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?) 

And then it delivers an ultimatum.

Character choices drive the plot, and at the end of the beginning, the protagonist should be facing a big decision. This is the moment where they embrace the problem and make a conscious decision to act on it and do something about it. This decision launches the rest of the novel.

Not forcing the protagonist to make a choice here is a common problem for weak or slow beginnings. Instead of choosing to advance the plot, the protagonist is “swept away” in some fashion and has no choice in what comes next. So instead of driving the plot and creating their own story, they’re a pawn of the author. The book is happening to them, not because of them.

For a strong beginning, make sure the protagonist is making a choice that causes the plot to happen.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Act One Problem) 

When you think about the beginning, include more than just the opening scene.

Starting a novel on the right foot makes it easier to plot, because the problems, goals, and motivations of the characters will be firmly established. What has to be done will be clear, and the protagonist will have obvious problems they have to resolve, and those problems will lead to the next, and the next, all through the book.

But don’t stress if it takes a few drafts to get your beginning right. It’s not uncommon to need to work through a story some before you figure out exactly what your beginning needs when you start a draft. Sometimes you have to write later scenes to understand how the protagonist got there, or what details in their lives are the important ones to the story.

Once you find your feet, don’t forget to go back and revise your beginning with all you’ve learned.

A good beginning promises readers the novel is worth their time.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and review the beginning of your current manuscript. Identify which of these elements it has, and if they pass muster. If you discover you’re missing some (or even all), then brainstorm ways to revise and craft a beginning readers can’t walk away from.

What are some of your favorite beginnings?

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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  1. Superb instructions for maybe the hardest single piece of writing there is.

    One thing I wish you'd included: a good beginning works through the main point about the story's main character. A tale will be completely different if its protagonist is shy or impulsive or meticulous or social, and that essential sense of them can even be a hint about where their arc is really going. So a good beginning presents what's going on in terms that make the reader aware how *this person* will try to deal with it, and intrigues the reader with that first glimpse of the character as well as the situation.

    Or their combination. There's nothing like coming through a beginning and gasping "THIS kind of person has to face THAT?"

    1. Great addition. I aimed this more plot-related, but I probably should have included a protagonist (grin). I'll have to add that in.