So, you’re ready to start your bestselling novel and I get it, you want to blow stuff up, knock someone off, or jump right into an affair. Well, how about we slow things down first.
One thing that defines an experienced novelist from an inexperienced novelist is how you begin your novel. You’ve likely heard that you must grab the reader in the first few pages. That’s true, though you must be careful with how you do it. Grabbing the reader’s attention doesn’t mean that you need to start with a murder, blowing up the White House, or Aliens in full-on strike of the world.
How should I start my novel?
So, if you are not starting your novel with a bang, then how do you start it? Good question, and I suggest you just look around. Starting a novel with the protagonist or any significant character in their normal life is where you can start. In the beginning of your novel, your protagonist is yet to become involved in the conflict to come. It is this “normal” life that you can begin to unravel for the reader your protagonist’s personal characteristics, their behavior, beliefs, and emotional concerns or conflicts such as anxiety over losing a job or divorce. These are all part of a person’s everyday life. Remember that most novels will show your protagonist go through a series of actions that will re-shape their life and often their beliefs. So, it is important to first define who they are and why these changes will be important.
Remember that what is normal is also relative. So, if your protagonist is a firefighter, normal may be responding to an emergency. Though, this emergency in the first chapter may not be related to the overall story. This is simply a normal call in the firefighter’s life. Still, as we will discuss, this emergency could foreshadow what is to come though not yet realized.
Interacting with others
As part of the normal world it can be helpful to introduce other characters in the first chapter and how the protagonist interacts with them. This is a good tool to use so that you can develop your character and show their needs, concerns, and overall behavior. A good example is Stephen King’s The Shining. In the Shining, King begins the novel with Jack Torrence interviewing for a caretaker position at the Overlook Hotel. Normal, right? We’ve all had a job interview. King uses this interaction between Torrence and his hiring manager as a way to reveal the personal conflict within Torrence, his emotional state, and some soon-to-be important character traits.
Yes, you can FORESHADOW
Foreshadowing is a warning or indication of something to come. So, while your character is in their normal life you can slowly hint at what is to come in the rest of the novel. For example, a firefighter in their normal life responds to a fire call. After they put out the fire your firefighter finds a child’s doll completely untouched by the fire sitting in the center of a room. Perhaps, this is a clue. It is certainly strange. In The Shining, Jack Torrence toward the end of his interview with a bitter manager learns that the previous caretaker murdered his family. Curious, yes. Strange, yes. Does Jack Torrence really care about something that happened and doesn’t involve him? Not really. These are small hints that are dropped into your character’s otherwise normal life that will help you move your novel forward.
The goal of your first chapter is not to start out with a bang and that is because your readers must first be interested, or even in love with your characters. If your reader doesn’t care about your character they will not care what happens to your character. Your first chapter is to show normalcy with a hint of imbalance. It is this hint of imbalance that you will use to slowly reveal the true conflict in the story.
Using our example of The Shining it becomes obvious very quickly that Jack Torrence has some personal demons he must deal with in his life. He may have anger issues, alcoholism, has difficulty maintaining a job, family problems, and more. King has created a character who has not yet, but is ready to soon explode.
It is the character traits and foreshadowing in the beginning of your novel that you will use to create your grip on the reader, move the story forward, unravel secrets, and pull literary agents and publishers into your world.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you start your books, or field any other questions you may have. Also, if you have any questions you’d like me to write on in a blog post just let me know, I’d be happy to help. Keep writing!