Some time ago, I addressed the subject of starting a novel in a post by the extraordinarily original title “How To Start A Novel.” 😉 In that piece, I made the case for beginning a story with an engaging character who wants something and with a clearly defined antagonist who will be the chief cause of things that thwart the character from reaching his desired end.
Scarlet wants Ashley, who becomes engaged to Melanie (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale that took his leg, but Moby Dick continues to elude him (Moby Dick by Herman Melville). Grady wants to be loved, but Floyd, his father figure, ignores him, uses him, and betrays him (The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers).
With those key components, a story is about to happen. But how to start?
I’ve wrestled with this topic in my own writing. One piece of advice I embraced is that the opening of a novel should be the bridge between the story and the backstory.
To clarify: backstory is what happened before the point in time when this story starts — often called the inciting incident. But before the story can actually start, readers need some sort of introduction to the main character. Otherwise, whatever starts the story will lose importance because readers don’t care about the character.
The first five pages (or so) give the reader a look at what life was like before the inciting incident disrupts the story world. At the same time, the opening should give some picture of what the character wants.
Of course, the character should have both internal and external desires that are story-long. However, the author doesn’t have to rush those forward. Rather, the character’s opening-scene want may be a faint echo of what will become the deeper need.
The first five pages should also anchor the reader in the story in several ways. One is by creating a mood — humorous, stoic, lighthearted, dramatic, ironic, angst-filled, and so on.
Setting may contribute to mood and is another element that anchors the story. Even though settings change as characters move about, readers need to “see” where they are. Especially at the beginning of a novel, it is critical that readers are not confused.
In contrast, an author wants readers to be curious which gives them ample reason to continue reading beyond the first five pages. Curiosity and confusion have nothing to do with each other except that some writers mix up the two.
To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page and find the answer. In the process of discovery, however, a new question will present itself, one with added weight, and the process continues.
On the other hand, if readers don’t understand who the players are or what is happening, they most likely won’t care to search for the answers to any questions that might suggest themselves. Their confusion stifles their curiosity.
Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by his choice of point of view (first person, omniscient third person, close third person) and verb tense, by his creation of style (sentence structure, description patterns, the amount of narrative versus scenes, and so forth) and voice (the author and/or character’s personality infused into the story by word choice and “speech” patterns).
If you’re thinking that’s a lot of responsibility for the first few pages of a novel to bear, you’re absolutely right. Readers form opinions from those opening pages. They make decision — do I like this character? do I want to read more? do I care what happens next? should I buy this book?
Experienced writers have learned to put considerable effort into getting opening scene right. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be right on the first draft, or there might not a novel at all. 😀
For further study, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is helpful for beginning writers.