A lot of fiction writers tend to start their novels in the wrong place. What do I mean by that? I mean that they either start their story too early or too late. How can you tell where and when is the correct place to start your story? Well, to make that determination you need to take some time to analyze just what exactly your story is about.
Let me start with an example. Imagine that you’re writing a novel that’s focused on a man struggling to come to terms with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In such a story, the character should immediately be confronted with the problem in some form. Perhaps he actually receives his diagnosis in the first chapter; if so, the story will largely deal with the emotional fallout of this devastating news. Perhaps, on the other hand, he only receives a hint of his condition. For example, perhaps he is perplexed when he completely forgets the way to work one morning, despite driving the same route for over thirty years; if this is so, the story will focus primarily around the mystery and the dread of the diagnosis. It all depends on the focus and themes you would like to explore.
However, the story should not begin a year after his diagnosis, with him struggling to remember the details of how he came to be in such a state; if so, too much of the meat of the story takes place outside of the characters’ present reality, and therefore the readers won’t be able to experience it unfold in a natural, satisfying progression. If you’ve done this, you’ve probably started too late.
Similarly, it would be a poor choice to begin the book several years before the man’s life begins to change. While this might present the opportunity to leisurely investigate his life, his family, his home, and his career, the crux of the story will come too late, robbing your book of the focus it needs and which readers crave. If you’ve done this, you’ve probably started too early.
Whether you’re early or late, many readers won’t stick with you. Once you identify the focus of your story, it will become clearer where the story in question most effectively gets underway.
Bear in mind also that your first scene shouldn’t be a throwaway introduction of the lead character. I’ve probably encountered a few dozen books that start with the main character looking at herself in the mirror and thinking about the past. For that matter, regardless of the location, reconsider starting your book with your character thinking, and instead consider introducing them by doing something. And not just anything, but something pivotal to the plot.
Indeed, that first scene should be something that by the end of the novel is packed with meaning and significance. Your readers should nod knowingly to themselves in hindsight and think, Of course the novel started there. That moment/scene/event informed everything that came after. Even better, try starting your book with your character facing a turning point or moment of crisis that sets the rest of your plot in motion.
Don’t be afraid to jump right in. You don’t need to start with ten pages of backstory and hope your reader will stick with you. The story doesn’t start on page eleven; it starts on page one. If you need the reader to understand ten pages of backstory, you’ve likely chosen to start your book too late. Backstory is inevitable, but make sure the reader gets to experience the most important and life-altering bits firsthand rather than forcing them to relive it through the filter of memory.
On the other hand, perhaps you think it’s a good idea to show your character living a day in the life of their typical existence before upending the apple cart. Perhaps you want to introduce all the characters gradually, and over time demonstrate their relationships with each other. That’s a risky move, because unless you are a highly experienced wordsmith, it’s going to be hard to keep a reader’s attention through daily drudgery.
Here’s a good rule: novice writers may want to think twice about trying to stun their readers out of the starting gate not by their command of an interesting and thoughtful tale but by the brilliance of their prose. For the most part, a writer’s first book is also their worst book. Not that it’s actively bad, necessarily, and naturally there are a number of famous exceptions to this rule. Here’s what I’m getting at: the more you write, the better your prose will become. Therefore, your first effort is only a starting point, and this means that your skill level is only going to increase. No matter how well you think you can write long paragraphs about brittle and multihued autumn leaves fluttering from the mossy boughs of tall, imperious oak sentinels, the biting October wind sweeping them upward in defiance of gravity into crackling, ever-shifting clouds of… where was I? Right. It’s a good idea to let your story do the talking, not the scenery. Chances are, all that gorgeous scenery isn’t going to compel your reader to turn to page two, and then page three and page four.
And that, of course, is the goal of every writer.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.