October 18, 2018
All novels must begin somewhere, and this can be one of the most daunting moments of novel writing. Few things are scarier than a blank page. However, there is one important thing to keep in mind: the opening to your novel in a rough draft is almost certain to change by the final manuscript. That means, you don't have to wait for the absolutely perfect opening to jump into your head before you can begin. It's better to simply start and worry about improving it once you get some words on the page. With this in mind, don't panic if you've started your novel with an opening that you'll either move to a different spot later or even delete entirely. The important thing is to begin.
Let Me Introduce Me
Some rough draft openings are actually your writer mind exploring essential details of the book and can be very helpful to solidifying the reality of the novel to you as you write. This usually manifests as the exposition opening. This is when you simply tell your readers all the stuff you feel like they should know. One popular way to do this exposition opening is to simply have your main character introduce himself (or herself): "Hi, I'm Joe. That's not the name on my birth certificate, of course, but nobody in the sixth grade is ever going to admit to being named Josephus, and I'm not about to be the first...." This is a really common opening in contemporary novel first drafts because they are often written in first person and this opening style allows the writer to explore some things about the main character right away: voice, conflicts, appearance, family, age, etc.
One positive thing about starting a rough draft this way is that it lets you become comfortable with the voice of your main character. Often a novelist begins writing while the main character is more of a concept than a person in the writer’s mind. These exposition openings of this sort function as a kind of writing exercise to let the writer get to know that character. While writing in the character's voice, the author discovers personality traits revealing themselves. The writer may learn the main character is darkly funny or surprisingly angry or has background that emerges in this rambling exposition opening. Often the process of simply writing in the voice of the main character allows your creative mind to slip deeper and deeper into the person. Some writers practice with the main characters voice in prewriting exercises. If you don’t, you’re likely to find this kind of exposition opening simply happens because you need it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
As you can see, there are excellent reasons for beginning with first-person exposition in a rough draft. But you will almost certainly need to change that before you reach your final draft. These rambling openings are slow, and they don't thrust us into a scene or let us begin to experience the now of the novel. As a result, they stall the forward momentum right at the point where you most need to charge forward. As you study this exposition opening during revision, you may find that some of the stuff that poured out should be moved to dialogue later. And you may find some of it was simply things you needed to know for the character to be real for you, but things that never actually belong in the novel at all.
Welcome to This World
Related to the first person introduction, the world building information dump is another sort of exposition opening and is very common in fantasy or science fiction or historical fiction rough drafts. Again, this kind of opening in a rough draft can be very helpful for the writer. It allows you to engage your creative mind as you get to know this world before you take on the added burden of actually entering the "now" of the novel. When the novel takes place somewhere very different from the world we live in, either by adding fantastical elements or taking us to a different time or occurring in a unique location that is probably unfamiliar to the reader, it may be helpful to simply pour out all the things you know about this world in the opening of your first draft.
An example of this kind of opening might be something like this: "In the year 2176, the borders of the United States have morphed from their shape during the country's first two hundred years. Florida is gone completely, though in the few fair weather months each year, the glass bottom cruises are popular, allowing tourists to peer down at buildings where only fishes can live now. Much of California offers the same offshore tourist industry, though these areas are harder to reach as few have the financial resources to cross the vast swaths of desert...."
Some writers of science fiction or fantasy become so attached to their exposition openings that they turn them into prologues, but most agents and editors are happy to tell you just how much they hate prologues. Like the first-person introduction, a prologue often stalls the forward momentum because they are simply statements of being (or ramblings about the world's past). If written extremely well with action or humor or other tempting bits, a few can squeak by, but they're always a gamble.
So How Do You Start?
Readers like jumping into the reality of your story through immersion into the now of the story. This means a scene, one from which the forward momentum of the novel begins. One rule of thumb for the opening of any story is start just before everything changes. So the story is likely to slip us into a moment that may seem ordinary. Usually we will sneak in something to make the main character meaningful to us. So imagine you're about to have the main character discover his parents have disappeared while he was away at school. You may open with him coming home, not expecting life to be different at all. But you want to give the reader a chance to care about the main character. So maybe he's hurrying inside so he can see if his mom is feeling any better since she was sick all weekend. (Thus showing himself capable of caring). Perhaps the boy is careful not to bellow as he comes in since Mom might be resting. But as he kicks off his shoes, he sees his dad's shoes lined up against the wall. He turns and looks out the window. That’s weird. Where is Dad's car? He drops his heavy backpack on the sofa and pokes his head around the corner into the kitchen, expecting to see his dad. No one is there, but the front burner on the stove is lit. He hurries over to turn it off, maybe thinking of how often he's been yelled at for that very thing. He heads down the hall toward his parent's room, rehearsing how he's going to tease his dad about the stove….
Now, this opening scene would expand to give the voice of the main character, specific detail of the house, and more interesting pacing, but you can see how this scene plan would give us a little time to meet the main character in action, to see him as the weird things begin to pile up and by the end of the scene he would reach the moment where everything changes. Because ultimately, that's where nearly all great novels begin. The main character may not be aware that their world is changing, but it is, and that's why a novel is interesting. A book where everything stays the same is dull. A book where a character's world changes and he or she is forced to deal with those changes is lively, interesting and exciting.
So where does your novel begin? Can you tweak it to make it start somewhere even better?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.