Last week’s post considered the elements of a good first line, but there’s a bigger (and in some ways harder) issue about the start of a novel, which is *where* in the story to begin. It’s usually pretty easy to know where to finish (although I struggled with that too last week). But it’s harder to know where the story begins. The actions of any character will partly depend on the things they saw and felt and experienced outside the confines of the story itself. In a later post, I’ll come back to ways of weaving in backstory, but for now, let’s just agree that some things are backstory, and some belong in the “now” of the narrative.
You want the beginning to be punchy, to include the hook, to rope the reader in. You want it to include an exciting scene, some intrigue, to introduce the main characters, setting and plot. So it’s tempting to find the most exciting thing which happens in the first quarter of your novel, and start there. Great – fantastic beginning, all sewn up.
If you do that, you spend the rest of that quarter catching up. As a rule of thumb, if the opening (which could be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter or even a couple of chapters) is immediately followed by a backstory-dump, you started too late.
There’s no easy answer to the question of where to begin; it’s entirely dependent on the story you’re telling. Usually, you just get a feeling about it – if the start drags, you went in early, if you end up with that backstory-dump, you came late to the party.
Think about your character arc and plot – generally, the first portion of the book sets the scene, tells us about the characters before anything starts to change in their lives or their psyches. Give yourself time to show this, but then you need to get on with the story, which is about those changes.
Since I’ve stolen a line from the Sound of Music for my title – let’s think about where that story starts. We get a brief look at Maria’s life in the convent: she longs to be free (The Hills Are Alive) which causes trouble for the nuns (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?); and then we’re off into the family Von Trapp, which is where the changes and therefore the plot begin.
Of course, starting before the action doesn’t mean you can’t start with a bit of action. It just has to be a little detached from the plot, whilst still being relevant at least in terms of theme and/or character. Consider, if you will, the beginning of any Bond movie (I’ve got Daniel Craig in my head – what else is new? – Casino Royale, I think). We see Bond somewhere exotic, taking down bad guys, possibly romancing a lady: none of them in the slightest bit relevant to the plot, but all relevant to the Bond franchise and exciting enough to start us off with a bang!