Getting it right from the start – novel beginnings

We all know that the most important part of writing a novel is to engage the reader because at the end of the day if they are the slightest bit bored they are either not going to buy the book in the first place or put it down part way through. I am about 6,500 words into my new YA novel with a goal to complete it by the end of the summer. I have blogged about my prewriting activities and now it is time to take a look at the novel’s start.

Advice on how to write the all important beginning of the novel is everywhere. Here are just some of the tips I have found:

1. Prologues who needs them? Many professionals will tell you to dump the prologue. They have studies or first hand knowledge that most readers skip the prologue and go right to the first chapter. I don’t do that but perhaps I am in the minority.  I have not written a prologue for my current novel in progress because I did not feel it needed one but I do not mind a well written prologue that sets the stage for the novel.

So when is it okay to write a prologue? I say if your novel does not start in a natural place in the grand series of events about to be laid out before the reader, you have tried to avoid back story in chapter 1 to no avail and the information is vital and intriguing then go ahead remove it from chapter 1 and turn it into a prologue. Also, I think prologues work really well for myth based stories when the original myth is told as part of the prologue.

2. Write a good opening sentence. It should hook the reader and make them want to carry on reading. Many writers do this by creating an action scene, applying a shocker or a bit of a drama. I agree these could all work as great hooks but are they necessary?

Sometimes something more subtle works too, such as in the opening line of The Great Gatsby by F, Scott Fitzgerald, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” It does not imply action, it is not shocking and there is no real drama going on but I wanted to know what that advice was so I carried on reading.

3. Cut out the back story. This is the mistake I made with the first novel I wrote. It is full of back story right from the start. It has a load of information dumped in right from the beginning and I know it is boring. The novel is still salvageable with plenty of rewriting and editing but it is not saleable in its present state. So instead of making that mistake and having to rework things later try to avoid it in the first place.

So here is the first draft version of my first paragraph:

There was still ten minutes until the final bell of the school year rang and if I hurried I could be out of the building and on my way home well before then. I slammed my locker door shut and hoisted my bulging backpack over my shoulder. I eyed the hallway up and down, all was clear. I chose to turn and head in the direction of the side exit, that was my best chance of escape. I made long strides, kept my head down and started walking.

Is it strong enough to hook a reader and have them wanting more? How do you try to hook your readers?

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About Billie Jo Schinnerer

Born and raised on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment in eastern New York. Formerly a primary and middle school teacher. Moved to the North West area of England in 2003. Now a mother of three and a wannabe author.
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11 Responses to Getting it right from the start – novel beginnings

  1. Very well said.

    I have to place my two cents, because I always have to say something, about backstory.
    It’s possible to hide bits of backstory in the paragraphs as whispers and rumors and secrets that are discovered along the way. With this mechanism, backstory becomes a dynamic plot device. It’s not a mindblowing technique as most writers have heard of or used it but you didn’t have it here and I thought it deserved inclusion.

    Your paragraph is nice. It overuses the perspective identification a little bit in my opinion; too many ‘I’s starting your sentences. The hook is still a little lacking. Here’s what I would have written:

    Come on, come on.
    Ten minutes before the bell and I was a mess. I couldn’t move fast enough, couldn’t gather my books and make sure my locker was empty quick enough for my own good. If I hurried I could be out of the building and on my way home well before the herds were released from their classes. Everything was checked and double checked, nothing was left inside. The shockwave from my locker door slamming made me smile. It was soothing, not the sound itself but the fact that it was the last I’d hear for the year. I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. The hallway was clear but it wouldn’t be for long. I headed for the side exit, my best chance of escape. I kept my head down and started walking, my eager legs making strides too long for their length.

    Of course, I don’t have your character in my head. I have my version of what I think your character would be, lol, but you get the picture. I added some punchy emotion in mine that I feel yours wasn’t giving. It’s a young person, getting out of school for the year. It’s summer. They’re obviously excited. From what I could tell, there’s more to it, probably someone the character wants to avoid or something along those lines but I’m just not feeling the presence of your character.

    Hooks are interesting because they rely so much on what is truly important in the story. I have one story called ‘Ashkii’s Spot’ that begins simply with ‘We named him Ashkii.’ It speaks to the first sentence being about playing with your reader. I don’t like the hook visual, it’s violent and unnerving. I like to call the first sentence ‘bait’. That, to me, is more descriptive of the actual use. You sprinkle a little information down, enough to wet their appetite, and then continue in a line. The real hook comes along at chapter four or five, or whenever you have that big ‘oh crap, things are getting ‘real” moment in your story.

    I generally focus on character development with the first sentence. I want it to illicit a feeling in the reader that they can understand where the character is coming from, or, on the opposing side of the field, make the voice, the character, scare the bejeezus out of the audience. I can stray away from it, if I want to describe a particularly interesting and important bit of scenery, but I almost always stick with characters.

    My favorite opening line I’ve ever written was the start of a series of fictional journal entries comprising a story of mine called ‘ninety nine’; “Work sucks, let’s just get that out of the way.”

    • Thank you for your comment. More experience has taught me how to more subtly weave in back story and that is what I am doing with this story.

      Thank you also for your input into my opening as well. You are correct the character is avoiding someone. She is in a hurry to get out of the building and away from that person. She is not usually an overly emotional character this is something she develops through the novel, she is usually quite reserved. When emotions are evoked within her it gives her a bit of a surprise. I was trying to reflect this by not putting in too many emotional cues but perhaps I need to rework how I portray that bit of her character from the start as well.

  2. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I was going to make a note about back story not being all bad, but I can see that I was beaten to the punch! So, instead, let me just say that I agree with you re: prologues. Much like you, I have never skipped a prologue to get straight into the story, but who am I to disbelieve the evidence? Still, after many years of reading high fantasy, I do think that they’ve been overdone, and sometimes add nothing but an 80s feel to a book.

    I was also going to comment on your first paragraph, but again @Aaron beat me to it. Clearly I’m going to have to be quicker off the mark if I don’t want to sound derivative! My statement was just going to be that I thought your first sentence was too bulky to have the impact that you were looking for. Remember that short sentences feel more urgent than long ones. I’d suggest cutting it in half to make it more snappy.

    (I’d also suggest swapping the order of your last two sentences. )

    • Jo thanks for commenting and for the advice. I am sure there will be a few rewrites of the first paragraph until I am completely satisfied with it.

      • Jo Eberhardt says:

        No doubt! I often fell like the rewriting is the longest part of the writing process. Fortunately, I also think it’s the most fun!

        Your first paragraph is definitely intriguing, so best of luck with the writing. I’m looking forwad to hearing how you go writing this novel using the modiied snowflake method, too.

      • Thanks again! I will keep everyone up to date through my blog. Structure and writing are not something I have ever tried before so it is a challenge.

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  4. I agree with your point about back story. Sometimes it’s necessary, but bits and pieces can be woven in unobtrusively.

    I really dislike info dumps. However, I’ve always thought that if the information is interesting and can be expanded, why not keep it in your notes and use it to create a prequel or some such thing at a later date? Think of how many stories have come about this way: a completely separate work that tells the origin story of a character, or the events that led to the initial disaster of a first book. Cutting your info dumps is a good thing, but never throw the material away.

    • Thanks! The novel I was referring to is actually the first book in a trilogy. It is YA with fantasy and sci-fi elements. I have kept most of the back story but have been more subtly weaving it in. Since I had less experience then I had simply dumped it on the reader in the first few pages. I agree the back story is needed sometimes. It is just taking far more rewriting to get it up to standard.

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