How To Start A Novel

How To Start A Novel

Your novel must be interesting and keep readers wanting more from beginning to end. But just those two are the most important. With the beginning you have a few sentences to make a potential reader want to buy your book. And with the ending you leave them feeling satisfied. If you do so, you just successfully acquired a reader for life. But don’t forget the middle! If it’s not interesting and it doesn’t teach the reader anything – they’ll stop. They’ll never get to the ending.

No matter how you publish your book, the reader will peak inside and read the first few lines. If you’re self-publishing, chances are that you’ll send out a few chapters to potential readers so they get hooked. Now, as much as I’m against using marketing techniques inside the artworks to get them to sell, there is no other way but to adopt this new trend and work with it.

How not to start a novel?

Dreams are forbidden. We’ve seen some incredible examples of novels opening with a dream, it’s enticing and captivating… And seen. You can use dreams throughout the rest of your novel as a tool for foreshadowing or as symbols, but you mustn’t open your novel with it – the readers find it the waste of time, in a sense.

Descriptions are best when they add to the story, when they support the story. Don’t use them to set up your whole story. Use descriptions only if you are trying to set up something very original and unconventional – if your plot revolves around a summer heatwave than you could open your novel with an afternoon scenery when everybody’s hiding in their houses and in air-conditioned bars (as I did, and I know it’s a risky thing to do but I couldn’t resist it – I still think of changing it).

How to start a novel?

A middle of a thought process is an interesting way to get readers hooked. Don’t start at the beginning, don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence. Start in the middle of a thought and let the readers figure it out – they won’t resist the temptation of finding out what it was all about.

Action scene is a commonly used opening for thrillers – a woman running in the night, being chased by an assassin. There’s a simple idea that gets your readers high on adrenaline.

A middle of a conversation is something that I really enjoy finding on the first page. “I must disagree, I believe that…” When was the last time you saw that? It makes me smile when a writer gives me that little window of opportunities to imagine what they are disagreeing about. Start your novel with that.

The protagonist teaching someone to do something is a well used opening but it still works and the readers like it. It gives you the opportunity to show your protagonist as they are and lets the readers get to know them.

A small conflict is an idea that we’ve seen few times and it still gets readers to keep reading to find out what happened. It lets readers get to know two sides of a story and get the feel of the rest of your novel.

Dead body is one of the most used and the most expected openings and readers love it. Of course, don’t start your romance novel with it, but you already know that I’m talking about thriller/mystery/horror genre here.

A scene after a disaster is a powerful opening that provokes your readers’ curiosity. Use it if it fits your plot. Or open with the middle of a disaster, which is just as good and it leaves the second chapter to deal with the aftermath.

The arrival of a ship/train/airplane/letter/e-mail or anything that would fit your story. It’s always interesting when there is something a bit mysterious or new: a prospect of a new life where your protagonist came by train or the mystery of unopened letter.

Fast forward to a middle or an end of a dramatic situation is another great way to open your novel. You give a glimpse of what happens after the events of your novel, then you backtrack to the beginning.

Committing a crime for a reason not yet explained is a nice way to set up characters. It could be your protagonist who is made to do that (although you should reject that idea since it was done so many times) or your antagonist doing what they do.

There you have it, 10 ideas on how to start your novel. Choose wisely, know your audience and make it work.

Keep writing!

Author: Mladen Reljanović

Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.

5 thoughts on “How To Start A Novel

  1. Good post. I often see new writers who want to give me the entire backstory upfront, so I’ll understand everything, but that usually isn’t necessary. The hero is hanging off a cliff and wondering how he got there? Great – let me see him deal with it. You can add in the details of how he got there later. A friend self-published a novel on Amazon and had me proof it for her. She had created a new world with a magic system in it. But the initial chapter included too much detail about that world, in addition to what was happening with the protagonist. It was boring, and at that point I didn’t care. Tell me where the protagonist is – what situation they are in – then go back and add in details that brought them there or will get them out as the story progresses. As you say, start in the middle of the action (even if the ‘action’ is dialogue or a thought process). Tell me enough so I’m not totally lost, but leave me wanting to know more. That’s why I’ll keep reading – to find out more. If you tell me everything in the first chapter, I know enough and you’ve bored me so I put the book down and walk away. Maybe if writers ask themselves ‘does this matter?’ with regards to their opening scene it will help. Do I need to know who the hero’s parents are, where he was born, the life he’s led up to the point he’s hanging off that cliff? No, it’s irrelevant initially. Later I will be curious, but get him off that cliff first.

  2. I can second the article. I’d only add weather to the How-not-to-start part of the article. (No rain! Bad writer!) If it doesn’t serve the story, or is not a crucial part of the climax/solution, do not add weather- I mean normal weather. When the hurricane comes and kidnaps Dorothy from Kansas, it’s okay; or when the Goddess of Rainbows descends to Earth, it’s okay.
    I also like to get little to no additional information upfront. Just throw me into the boiling pool of the incoming storytide. Let me struggle for every bit of information, so I cannot peel my eyes from the page. That’d be nice.

    1. I completely agree! And thank you for the suggestion. I will add ‘how to not start’ as soon as possible! I do have quite a list of tropes that I mean to publish 😀

  3. Brilliant post, very interesting and true! Happy to see my starting point was listed, so hopefully that means I have a strong start…not a dream!! Completely agree with you on that!

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