“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

3 Ways to Start Your Novel

Beginnings matter.

We only get one chance to hook our readers, to pull them in, to guarantee they must read on. That’s probably why so many writers panic over how to start writing those first few pages of a novel.

3 Ways to Start Your Novel

So how do you start a novel? Where is the best place to begin? Take heart, dear reader: in today’s post, I’ll give you three ways to start a novel, a bonus nugget about antagonists, and a key question to ask yourself before you get to work.

A Simpler View on How to Start Your Novel

There are already a ton of great posts out there about starting your novel.

(There are also posts in which literary agents have spoken about what they’re sick of seeing, e.g. the main character dies at the end of chapter one; the first chapter is just a dream; the first two pages describe the landscape; and prologues, which everybody seems to hate for some reason).

Let me propose an even simpler view. I suggest three solid ways to get your novel off the ground: External Change, Internal Change, and Environment.

How to Start a Novel: External Change

A solidly good spot to begin your novel is when something changes outside your protagonist, forcing them to act. I’ve seen it called “the inciting incident,” but it doesn’t have to be dramatic. In my own books, I use this particular moment a lot:

  • The Sundered: A young man captures an alien slave, and in the process learns that everything he thought he knew about his world is a lie.
  • The Christmas Dragon: A young woman spends years hiding from her magical heritage, but suddenly has to reclaim it when a baby dragon arrives at her door.
  • Strings: A selfish elf Prince has to abandon his simple life of hedonism when imaginary monsters from childhood come a-calling.

All these characters had lives and histories before the first chapter of the story. World-building is still required, so I have to weave it in through the character’s reactions to what changed. The point is that something came from outside to interrupt their pattern of living.

Think of external change as the finger that pushes that first domino over, causing a chain reaction we might as well call plot.

Note: External Change is best for characters who think they have a pretty good bead on things and aren’t likely to change on their own.

Bonus Hint: Use Antagonists to Start a Novel

Side note: funny enough, this is one of the reasons we tend to like antagonists so much. Take a silly example: Dracula.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

No, not that one. The book one.

Dracula (by Bram Stoker) starts out following Jonathan Harker as he travels through eastern Europe to Dracula’s castle. Why is this happening? Because Dracula has decided he no longer wants to live in Transylvania (Internal Change on the part of the antagonist), and has asked for help from an English real estate agent.  Dracula sent out the request (External Change), which takes this English gentleman out of his natural habitat and begins this classic, gothic tale.

Here’s another one: Loki, portrayed by Tom Hiddleston in Thor (2010). His Internal Change (decision to play a prank thanks to jealousy) leads to the expulsion of Thor from Asgard (External Change for the protagonist), kicking off Thor’s personal redemption arc.

What both Loki and Dracula did occurs off-screen right before the official plot starts. Without antagonists, neither of these stories would happen.

I hope you enjoyed the bonus hint. Back to my main points!

How to Start a Novel: Internal Change

One of my favorite plot-starters occurs when nothing outside the character seems to change. The protagonist changes first, and then starts acting on the rest of the story.

This is the character who’s likely already been mulling over things for some time. The one who’s had the same dead-end job for years, or has been trapped in the same cell/room/city/planet for far too long. The one who’s always wanted more—but never had the courage or opportunity to take it.

The crucial difference between this and the “External Change” option is this: if the protagonist does not act, nothing changes, and the world continues on as it was. Here are three examples.

  • The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): Katniss stirs the pot by volunteering as sacrifice/tribute (a position most people do anything to avoid), and in the process begins a violent transformation of her entire culture.
  • The Warded Man/The Painted Man (Peter V. Brett): Arlen can no longer abide losing the nightly struggle for survival against demons, but when he decides to run away and find a better method, he sets events into motion that drastically change the entire world.
  • It (Stephen King): Something preys on the town of Derry (and the area around it) for thousands of years, and no one can stop it —  until seven special children decide to take a stand.

Beginning with internal change often takes a little bit more time to set up, which gives you a chance to do worldbuilding and add descriptions. Explanation and introduction all have the single purpose of framing the protagonist’s choice to break the mold.

Note: Internal Change is best for characters who are deeply proactive. These are the characters who are going to make ripples no matter what their situation is—even if they have to start the bake sale/leave the country/enter the enemy base all by themselves.

How to Start a Novel: Environment

I’ve often heard it said that the environment can act as an character. The struggle can be man vs. ocean, pilot vs. space, woman vs. desert.

The book that immediately comes to mind when I think of beginning with environment is The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin. The concept for that story is a centuries-long survival plan for mankind based on the idea that our sun is going supernova—and the earth itself must be flown through space to orbit a different sun in order to survive.

Many generations are covered in this book, so there isn’t one main protagonist. Every character reacts to this drastic change in their own way. Check out the beginning:

I’ve never seen the night, nor seen a star; I’ve seen neither spring, nor fall, nor winter. I was born at the end of the Reining Age, just as the Earth’s rotation was coming to a final halt.

The wandering earth (and isn’t that title glorious?) is the thread that keeps the whole book together, and so interacting with it is the perfect place to start.

Another example is the Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey. In this, the world is wrecked by war, and the only survivors live and die in underground silos. We follow several different characters through this series, and each of them is responding to what is (or isn’t) outside those silos. This begins with Holstson walking up the spiral staircase in the narrow metal silo that comprises his entire world.

Extras

Obviously, there are endless variations on these three themes.

  • There’s the Failure, in which your protagonist screws up something they shouldn’t have screwed up (an important test, calculations for ship re-entry, how much to feed the goldfish, etc.), which then resonates through the rest of the story. This can be External Change (the death of the goldfish leads to jail time because of reasons), Internal Change (the protagonist realizes the fish’s death is their fault, and starts a non-profit organization to help dying goldfish everywhere), or even Environment (the death of the goldfish was an warning for upcoming and scientifically dubious SUDDEN climate change).
  • There’s the Normal Day, by far the most risky beginning, which just follows a character through their average day. This is a very dangerous way to start, however, because if your character’s personality and thought-patterns aren’t absolutely riveting, your reader will have no reason to continue reading. Usually, a normal day follows Internal Change, since it relies on the protagonist’s way of thinking to keep the plot moving.
  • There’s the Memoir, in which the speaker is simply telling what happened to lead to the present  state of things. The speaker usually tells the story around External Change which forced them to act, or Internal Change in which they rocked their own world.
  • There’s straight-up World-Building, which is essentially beginning with environment. This one’s also risky, but it can be done. For an exceptionally well-written example, I suggest you check out A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. Following her protagonist Kell as he hops to different dimensions, Schwab seamlessly builds her world, so by the end of the first chapter, you have a good idea of how magic works — and how that magic acts on the characters in the book.

The Key Question on Starting Your Novel

Now that you have a general idea, here is the key to ask yourself: what would change if your beginning scene were not there?

You’ll see me say this a lot here at The Write Practice: if you can cut that scene without changing anything in the story, you don’t need that scene.

Think of it as dominoes falling again:

Dominoes Fail

Everything you write should have a purpose, a reason for being there. Be brutal when answering that question.  If you can cut that scene without changing anything, then that is not the place to begin. It’s essentially a domino that fails to get the chain reaction going.

Even if that scene is one of your favorites, if it could be snipped without changing anything… well. Stephen King said to kill our darlings, even when it breaks our egocentric little scribbler’s hearts.

Just take my advice and put your cut scene in a separate folder, rather than simply deleting it. You’ll thank me someday.

Did these points help you figure out where to begin your current writing project? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to tackle the beginning of a new story using External Change, Internal Change, or Environment. Share your results in the comments section!

Happy writing!

About Ruthanne Reid

Bestselling author Ruthanne Reid writes about elves, aliens, vampires, and space-travel, and she is the author of the Among the Mythos series. Subscribe to her articles at RuthanneReid.com, and follow her on Twitter (@RuthanneReid)

  • LilianGardner

    An amazing article showing you different ways of beginning a novel.
    I like the idea of cutting out the beginnng scene, to see if it is needed. I must try it.
    Thanks, Ruthanne.

    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Lilian! It can really be invigorating to start in a different place.

  • Great suggestions, Ruthanne! I always struggle with how to begin a novel, which can be paralyzing because if you don’t begin with the beginning and it feel like something descent, you’re less likely to keep going and finish. I’ve never read The Wandering Earth, but it sounds interesting.

    I went with internal change, I think, with my practice today:

    Hunter Freeman looked at the picture Tara, with tears still streaming down her eyes, slipped into his jacket pocket before the Sector dragged him away.

    “I forgive you,” she said before kissing him for the last time.

    The image of Zane and Marley’s innocent faces stared back at him as droplets of rain began to do the picture. Hunter glanced up at the cloud cover. It was so hard to tell what the weather would be like when the sky was always black. He missed bright cushy existence the Sector had taken him from. At least his family would be safe and his mistakes would hurt them anymore.

    He glanced back at the picture. Zane would be seven in two weeks, and Marley had just turned four. He clenched the fist of his free hand and looked out at the horizon. He’d have to enter the fray sooner or later. He put the photo back in his pocket and unholstered the energy gun the Sector had outfitted him with. He held the gun up, admiring its the efficiency of the weapon. If he shot a normal human being with, every particle of their body would dematerialize. For the Injected, well, you hoped it would do something to keep you alive.

    He put the gun to his head. He’d never see Tara and the kids again, no matter how much wanted to, so why bother fighting for the Sector? Of course, he knew. Their safety was only guaranteed in so much that he demonstrated his highest effort in his fight for the Sector. Any semblance of surrender would mean Tara’s execution and Zane and Marley’s entrance into the Academy. He couldn’t let that happen.

    Hunter picked up his pack and walked down the hill, his gun ready.

    • ruthannereid

      Wow. That is INTENSE. I recognize this world (I think) from the one you’ve written about on the boards. I have to say, this opening rivets me. There’s world-building, tension, even a major decision for this character, one with consequences. Great job!

      • Thanks. It is the same world several years into the future. I’ve been planning this story for awhile but wondering how I should start it. Figured today’s practice would be a good place to start.

        • ruthannereid

          It definitely works for me!

          • Thanks!

          • LilianGardner

            Hi Ruthanne.

            After reading your article on three ways to start your novel, I’ve deleted the beginning thrice of my story about the ‘tipping point’,by following your suggestion.I’ve had to alter the rest of the story as well, but I feel as if I’ve improved it.

            Lilian

          • ruthannereid

            Lilian, that’s great news! I’m really eager to read your final draft.

          • LilianGardner

            I uploaded the revised story. Does it read better now? I’m open to all suggestions. I’d love it if you can give me feed back.
            Thanks Ruthanne.

  • “Think of external change as the finger that pushes that first domino over, causing a chain reaction we might as well call plot.”

    What a great illustration. Simple, yet so very true!

    Thank you for that and for your very clear thoughts on how change can be used to start a novel. Great advice!

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

    • ruthannereid

      Thank you, Carrie! I’m really glad it helped you out!

  • This post came at the perfect time for me! I am nearing the end of my novel draft and I just peeked at my opening scene which I know I need to tweak and/or change all together. I love the domino test! And that hilarious video clip. That actually clarified things for me. Thank you!

    • ruthannereid

      Dana, that’s fantastic! I’m so glad it helped you find your way. 🙂

  • I have to say, i used in my novel’s beginning an normal day and now thinking about changing it

    • ruthannereid

      That’s exciting! How are you thinking of changing it?

      • I add an unordinary guest – iron bird- visit main character

        • ruthannereid

          Now, THAT sounds interesting!

  • Gary G Little

    Hank regained awareness. He was lying on something cold and hard that it was vibrating, sometimes shifting from side to side. What the hell? Like a Lunar excursion transprt vehicle. He’d ridden enough of them as a kid with his dad working the mines outside Selene, so he knew what that felt like. The sound was the same, that low pitched almost gutteral grumble of out of sync electric engines. Hell this could be his dad’s Ol’ Betsy. Why was he in Ol’ Betsy, if it was Ol’ Betsy? How? Betsy, if it still existed was on the other side of Selene, at least a two hour tube ride not counting station delays to get to the surface.

    He had been leaving Goldman & Minellis Lunar Import and Export, about to walk into the vertical access tube heading for his housing block when … what? The lights went out. Yeah, the lights went out.

    • ruthannereid

      That’s some external change right there! Wow!

  • Just picking up on what you were saying about background, I have a theory that the longer the story moving forwards, the further backwards you will need to consider in your background material – whether that is using real life history or history of your own invention.

    Whatever you do, however, that planning or research must be fun. I have recently started writing up my character profiles and back histories like little rough stories or discussions, making them informal and rambling. Much more fun and, in the end, a lot more detailed.

    Try this post and see whether it fits with your own thinking: http://cchogan.com/planning-a-trilogy-or-saga/

    Have a nice day!

    CC

    • ruthannereid

      There definitely has to be a payoff for the writer of some kind! That’s a really astute observation.

  • fairytail

    I’am not sure if this falls into one of the good plot starters that you placed up their, it’s more of a little idea I had in my head and I quickly wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.
    Now I have a story idea for it and was thinking of making this my Intro.
    But I’am not sure I have other Ideas of how I could start that might or might not be better then this one.
    I tend to start story’s off a little vaguer then most, focusing more on the scenery and colors you then the events that are happening

    The sun rose into the night’s sky bringing a warm glow and a morning’s light casting down onto freshly fallen snow. A small doll lay forgotten on the cold street’s of London, as the people slowly awoke and went upon their daily live’s.

    Sad dark eye’s stared up at the sun as it’s bright ray’s made the doll’s once silky hair, shine a beautiful velvet, as the long strand’s cascading down to help frame the doll’s small face. Skin that was once as white as the snow that lay beside it, was now decorated with color’s of brown and a painful crimson that bloodied the now torn and tattered Kimono that was once the color of the sun rise.

    A girl with plain brown hair ran beside a boy with equally plain hair, as they chased after a tall and delicate women with hair that was of gold.

    All with bright smiles on their face.

    The small boy tripped on air, face falling right in front of the doll.

    The girl stopped a few feet ahead, as he stared at the small doll, admiring the strange beauty it somehow held.

    Picking up the doll the boy stared,as if hypnotized he started to trace the small plump lip’s and the strange decoration the was so carefully crafted on round cheek’s and beside wide innocent eye’s that stared right through the soul. It looked as if the doll was getting ready for a festival.

    “Jasper! hurry, mommy’s getting worried” called the small girl voice a bit quiet and shy with a impatience stabbing at the edge.

    The boy quickly dropped the doll and ran after the girl, taking one last glance before catching up to the beautiful figure that held out warm arm’s for the children to take.

    The doll watched as the smile’s slowly faded away into darkness along with everything else.

    • ruthannereid

      Hi, Fairytale! There’s actually a lot to love in this piece. It feels like you’re trying to portray a visual story, like something scene through a camera lens. It’s effective, if a bit rough! I’m really glad to have read it, and I’m curious where it’s going.

      I’d say in terms of things to work on, look on the use of the apostrophe and figure out the difference between plural and possessive words (cats vs. cat’s).

      I hope to see more!

      • fairytail

        Thank you so much for you kind words. When I re-read this I understand what you mean by ‘rough,’ Especially when the little boy and girl came in. The lines just did’t flow as naturally and smooth as they should’ve It reminded me of riding on a bumpy road, and will do on the plural and possessive stuff I’ll try to be more careful about that from now on. Thanks for the advice 🙂

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