How to Start a Novel

By Steph Fraser | Posted on April 17th, 2019

Making a good first impression is important to any area of life, including your story. Knowing how to start a novel is crucial to its success. The first few scenes set the stage for readers. It is your best chance to grab their attention and make them want to keep reading. It is usually where you introduce your main character, and their first impression matters too.

Usually, the goal is for readers to like the main character, and the introduction to them is important. Deciding how to start a novel will depend on the type of impact you want to make at the beginning of the story. Do you want your readers to get inside your character’s head? Do you want to throw readers into the midst of the action right away? Are you hoping to begin by evoking some strong emotions? You must figure out your goal, and then craft a brilliant beginning that accomplishes your goal.

How to Start a Novel: Plotting and Planning

How to start a novel in the early stages is widely debated. Some people swear by extensive and thorough planning, while others prefer to wing it! As you write more and find your style, you’ll learn what works for you.

Whichever side of the fence you end up on though, all novels need at least a little bit of preliminary work. Whether it’s plotting, researching, character sketching, or all of the above. Even the most dedicated pantser needs to have some idea of what’s going on.

If you want some help figuring out an outline and organizing your novel-related notes, there are programs that can be of great assistance. Squibler offers a simple yet comprehensive set-up that makes planning and writing your novel as efficient and easy as possible.

It offers you a place to create, store, and organize notes. It keeps them close and accessible, but out of the way of your main writing. This will save you a lot of time and effort as it eliminates a lot of shuffling and document switching that would have to happen otherwise.

When you are ready to actually write your novel, it allows you to separate everything into chapters, and even more so into scenes if you wish. You can write in chronological order or you can jump all over the place – whatever works for you! The great thing about this design is that you can easily rearrange your chapters and scenes with a simple drag-and-drop method. Planning out your novel can be difficult, and Squibler is designed specifically to take some pressure off the novel writing process.

The Basics of How to Start a Novel

Regardless of the style in which you choose to start your novel, there are a few universal elements to keep in mind. These are simple, flexible, but essential things that will set your story up the right way every time.

Create a Point of No Return

There are a few things you should establish early on in your story. You want your character to end up in a position where they are making a choice or doing something that they absolutely cannot turn back from. There should either be no way your character can resist going on this path, or they should have no choice.  

Do this by creating a problem for your protagonist almost right away, and establish the stakes of the story – the higher the better. Once you have set up the issue and led your character to their decision, create a scene that will force your character into this central conflict.

Reveal Minimal Backstory

Don’t get caught up in the exposition. Too much basic explanation and straight description will have your readers yawning before they finish the first chapter. Establish your entire backstory and all pertinent details, and then examine them for importance. Reveal only the most important and necessary pieces of information in the beginning.

Other pieces of backstory and relevant information can be revealed throughout the rest of the story in different ways. A minimal description is acceptable in most cases, but try to do more showing than telling. Let things be revealed through actions and circumstances, rather than a character (or narrator) just saying it all.

When someone has just started reading your story, they don’t know the characters yet. They don’t know anything about their lives. They aren’t invested in your characters – not yet anyway. You need to reel them in with something interesting that will make them care about your characters and their lives.

Add a Significant Secondary Character

While a large cast of characters can work in some cases, it is usually more effective to focus on fewer characters and have them do more. Your main protagonist will, of course, be your main focus. However, it is a good idea to place some importance on a secondary character or two in the beginning as well.

First impressions are important all around, and this includes your secondary characters. If a character is quiet and inactive in the beginning of the story, they will likely remain so throughout. Brainstorm some things that a secondary character could do that would greatly impact the story as a whole. Have at least one of these things happen in the first few pages.

This establishes them as someone who is important, if not the main focus. It also sets up their relationship to the protagonist and their role in that relationship.

Different Ideas on How to Start a Novel

Once you have the basic structure in place, you need to create a good hook. You need something that will grab the reader’s attention right away. There are a few different ways to do this and the style you choose can depend on a few things:

  • Your personal writing style
  • The genre of your novel
  • The overall plot of your story

The Action Scene

If you want to grab your reader’s attention and get their heart racing, throw them into the action right away. Give them something that is exciting, dangerous, disturbing, a bit crazy, or all of the above. Create an action scene that is easy enough to follow, but is just confusing enough to have readers craving answers and reading on to find them.

This action scene should act as the inciting incident – something that disrupts your protagonist’s whole existence. Once readers have met your character and seen their problem, they will begin to care.

The type of action you begin with will depend on genre and plot, but some examples include:

  • A physical fight
  • A police chase
  • A major robbery
  • A murder
  • A kidnapping
  • A grand betrayal
  • A war battle
  • The opposing side/antagonist winning a battle/fight/war

A Moment of Change – Internal and External

Not every novel opener needs to be fast paced and laced with action, but it does have to be interesting. If you don’t want to throw your characters into a big fight right away, start your story with a big change. This change can occur within your protagonist, or around them.

Internal Change. This is when nothing around your protagonist appears to change. Circumstances remain the same, but something inside of them begins to turn. They decide to change the direction of their life, or they change their mind about something that is going on. Perhaps they decide to act on feelings they’ve buried for a long time.

Something within them is suddenly different, and this change drives the story as they begin acting on it. They make further decisions around the change. A good thing to keep in mind when writing internal change: If your protagonist doesn’t act, then the world around them stays the same and continues on as before.

External Change. This is when your protagonist is not planning on doing anything differently, but something happens. Their surroundings or circumstances change and they are forced to act on it.

The event or events should be life-altering. It will cause a series of reactions within the protagonist that will set them on the path of your story. The impending chain reaction to this inciting circumstantial change is what will make up your plot.

Confusion

Another good place to start your novel can be a state of utter confusion. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or exciting, but it should cause readers to wonder what on earth is going on. This can be a bit of a risky move as there is the chance of readers becoming too confused. They may give up on the story before diving in and finding answers for their confusion.

This type of beginning requires a skillful balance of unanswered questions and relatability. If you can successfully pull off a whirlwind of just enough confusion, you will have your readers hooked until the end. Take careful note of the unexplained things that happen, and answer them slowly throughout the rest of the story.

An Extreme Setting

Many will say that a setting can act as a character of its own. In some cases, it can even be the antagonist. There are stories of man vs. ocean, man vs. desert, pilot vs. air. These stories often revolve around survival and can either be an exciting thrill, or deeply psychological. They can explore themes of loneliness, self, and internal reflection.

If you are looking to catch the attention of your reader and let them know your book is something different – introduce your wild setting and bring it to life. Place your protagonist right in the middle of it, and begin the struggle.

How to Start a Novel with a Prologue

There are many debates about the prologue. Some hate the concept and will urge writers to never use one. Others love the mysterious lead-in it offers and will be proponents of the prologue for as long as they live.

Whether or not you currently have a stance on the prologue, the reality is that there can be many benefits to a well-written and effective prologue. The issue can be getting it right. Prologues can become useless and confusing very easily.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself if your novel even needs a prologue. Unnecessary prologues will do nothing but turn the reader off before they’ve even begun.

If your prologue meets any of the following criteria, abolish it immediately:

  • You are using it for a massive information dump.
  • It has absolutely nothing to do with the main story at all.
  • It is very long.
  • The sole purpose of your prologue is an attempt to hook readers (this can be done in chapter one).
  • The sole purpose is to introduce the setting or create atmosphere. This can be worked into the main story and a prologue is likely not needed.

On the other hand, there are some situations where a prologue works beautifully:

  • It can reveal the inciting incident. This is the moment that catapults the protagonist into the heart of the action. These generally take place early on in the story, but there are cases where it may happen beforehand, or without the knowledge of your main character. This could be a prologue.
  • It creates dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a wonderfully intense form of suspense where the readers know something that the characters don’t. A prologue can be a great way to introduce this information as you can reveal what you need to without interrupting the flow of the main story.
  • It can foreshadow important events or details. Foreshadowing often goes unnoticed until after the fact, and that’s what makes it so impactful. Something happens and readers will realize that they should have known all along. This also adds re-read value. Foreshadowing is often picked up the second time around.

The Process Takes Time

Starting a brand new novel from scratch can be overwhelming and intimidating. Especially for newer writers, it can seem like an impossible task. It’s not. With patience and perseverance, it can be done, but it’s a process that takes time. It takes time to learn, and it takes time to perfect. Not everyone is going to have an identical process. There are methods, structures, tips, and tricks galore, but ultimately you need to develop something that works for you. So, take a deep breath, pick something (anything!) to start with, and write that novel!

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