Where do you start your novel? I struggle with this, and I’m sure other writers do too.
Most writers are probably aware of the usual advice of what to include in the first five pages. From Nathan Bransford to Steven James (both highly recommended), almost every writer’s blog has some advice about how to start your story.
First Chapter Checklist
This is my personal first chapter checklist:
- Grab the reader’s attention. Hit the ground running with energy, emotion, suspense or a hint of something intriguing to come.
- Orient the reader to the setting.
- Establish mood and tone of the story.
- Introduce a protagonist the reader will care about, are prepared to worry about, and who they are willing to emotionally invest time into.
- Introduce the inciting incident (the change in the protagonist’s life that kicks off the story) as early as possible. Even while establishing your MC’s “normalcy”, where they are going, and what they’re doing, is already changing even if they don’t know it yet.
- Build trust with the reader, and give them confidence that you’re going to take them on a great story ride.
For me these points are more about the crafting your opening scene. Even if you satisfy these six elements, there’s still the possibility that you’re starting your story in the wrong place.
Choosing where to start your story
In Star Wars, there are several places that the story could have started.
- baby Luke and Leia are orphaned
- Luke Skywalker is given to his aunt and uncle to be raised on Tatioon
- Luke finds the droid
- Luke first hears Leia’s message
- Luke’s family are killed and he is orphaned
Each of these openings has its own strengths, but which one is most effective?
Five places to start your story
My biggest aha moment came from reading Jeff Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook: the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction”. In his book he breaks down the start of his novel “Finch” by exploring four potential starting points.
Building on his work, I’m going to map out five places to start your story.
Firstly, let me note that these options mostly apply to those writing SF/F, or secondary worlds, where some degree of setting and background are an essential part of orienting the reader to your character and story.
Option 1: standing over the dead body
Quite literally, the protag is dropped into the action at its most interesting starting point. From here on in, it’s Thunderbirds are go.
Examples include: When Luke finds the droid. When the Agents first come for Neo at work.
This start has: immediacy, establishes the central problem, provides instant interest and tension, sets the genre, introduces at least one important character, and establishes the “crime scene” (or whatever setting is important to the novel).
Reasons why this option may not be suitable for your story:
- it gets to the point quickly and if the pace of this opening sequence doesn’t reflect the overall pace of your story, your next chapter will appear slow by comparison;
- If the opening action is too “explosive”, subsequent drama may feel like an anti-climax.
- The amount and type of information you can reveal about your setting and characters is limited in order to sustain the pace.
- The reader has no context for the events
- Your ability to introduce and develop a character that the reader cares about is much harder.
This option may be tricky if: your book is cross-genre, so the set up only prepares the reader for a single genre; no opportunity to describe the wider fantastical setting; introduces the reader to the character only through interaction with other characters (when the character by themselves might be more effective); or making it difficult to determine hierarchy of characters when they are all introduced on a level playing field.
Option 2: headquarters ensemble
The protag in their normal world, on the cusp of the event that will pull them out of their comfortable world.
Examples include: the funeral scene in the Big Chill, the gathering of the Ocean’s 11 team, every episode of Hill Street Blues and many police procedurals.
This start has the protag start in the midst of a cast of characters who have their own stories to tell; the location can serve as the nexus, anchor, or focal point for the narrative; the reader can gain a more complete understanding of character relationships, history, and motivations.
This option may not be for you if: introducing multiple characters at once may make it harder to flesh out each one; ensemble casts lend themselves to multiple POVs and you want only one; interactions between characters leaves less space for context about the setting, history, or background.
Option 3: Sweeping overview
This start has a panoramic view of the main setting; expansive, with large casts of POV characters, so the scope allows for near-omniscient sweeping descriptions. The setting itself becomes a character.
Example: Suburban landscape in American Beauty, or the idyllic 1950’s style estate in Minority Report
The setting impacts the characters specifically, and thus the plot. Your voice and psychic distance are rooted in the bird’s eye, omniscient view.
This option may not be for you because it has a distant emotional point of view; the description can be largely lifeless, inert, and lack emotional resonance; may send the wrong message about the genre. It’s hard to engage with specific character concerns.
Option 4: At the threshold
This start shows the character on the verge of crossing over into the main action or encountering the inciting incident. Standing at the door to the apartment where the dead body lies within. In many cases your protag will quite literally cross a threshold, or go through a door to the main event.
The character prepares themselves for the ordeal to come (if they’re aware of it), or it’s a glimpse into their normal world moments before it changes significantly (the inciting incident awaits). Does the character hesitate at the threshold, or barge on through? What does this tell you about them? Are they alone or with someone else? What thoughts, discussion occurs?
Doors provide opportunities in fiction to underscore characters decisions. They are symbolic of commitment to an action. Every choice a character makes tells the reader more about them. This focuses on the character.
There is a progression for the character then, as they cross the threshold, and event by event come to the main action of the story (the inciting incident).
Eg. When Luke tracks down the droid, or when Neo is invited to the party (follow the white rabbit),
Option 5: Prologue
A significant event that shows the inciting incident, which may or may not include your protagonist. This is the event that kicks off your story in the past, or in a parallel series of events.
Prologues are a tricky thing. Many people condemn them as unnecessary. Some genres swear by them. There will be times, that an event that effects the MC, and kicks off the story, may in fact be in the past, and the story would be stronger by showing this.
If your prologue events can be told through backstory or inference, then I would opt to start the story in the present action.
Eg. The matrix starts with the prologue of Trinity hacking, and then escaping the Agents. This is a hook, but also sets the context and mystery for Neo meeting Trinity at the party.
Here’s an exercise to help you find the best place to start in your novel.
Write 5 versions of your opening scene:
- As close to the inciting incident as possible. Try to back tell any relevant plot, and get the reader to empathise with your MC as quickly as possible.
- Moments before the scene above, providing more context and creating more connection with your character.
- Placing your character in a position where they have a sweeping world overview of your world or setting. You might consider a balcony, bird’s eye view, a high point in the landscape or an omniscient narrator’s perspective.
- As a prologue, that kicks off your story in the past.
- That’s set in a significant location with an ensemble cast (this one may not workable or be appropriate for your story).
What approach you do use to find the starting point for your story?