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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.