7 Ways to Begin Your Next Novel
Often one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel is starting. The blank page is known to have intimidated even some of the greatest authors, so it should come as no surprise that no matter how many novels you’ve written – whether it’s your first or your 30th – the beginning is often the most difficult.
However, what many writers and storytellers will also tell you is how exciting that blank page can also feel.
It’s filled with endless possibilities, endless ways to introduce your grand story and all the characters that fill that story – and yet you have to pick just ONE?
No wonder it can take many writers weeks or even months to figure out how to begin!
The Many Possibilities of a Good Beginning
In my many years of studying stories, I’ve often found that the beginnings of stories are perhaps the most flexible aspects of the narrative. Perhaps this is because the start of a novel can be changed more easily without creating issues and plot holes later on in the narrative, or perhaps it is also because the beginnings of novels tend to be on the more artistic side and less focused on narrative.
After all, the beginning of a book is highly important – so you must get it right to hook readers in and make them want more.
But what is “right” for some books can be totally “wrong” for others. An action-packed opening scene may work for certain novels, but for literary fiction, many readers are much more enticed by a well thought out passage.
So, with all the possibilities, where does one begin? And how does one find the best beginning possible for their story – not anyone else’s?
In my many years writing both drafts of novels and short stories, I’ve watched my beginnings change over and over and have found that the key to finding the best beginning to your novel is to write whatever comes to mind first, then to fix it later.
But that approach doesn’t work for everyone – especially those who like to do more plotting than “pantsing” – which is why I have created a list of seven potential ways you can begin your literary fiction novel, detailing the benefits of each beginning.
To get the most out of these different ways to start your fiction novel, I suggest envisioning your own work in each different introduction or opening chapter, mixing and matching features until you find a beginning that feels right for you AND your story.
Once you’ve found the right beginning for your story, it’s time to put the pen to paper because guess what – you no longer have an excuse not to write!
1 | In the Middle of a Conversation
Beginning your novel with a conversation of some sort is almost always a way to immediately intrigue your reader, especially if it is done in the middle of the conversation, leaving a lot of guesswork on the reader’s part.
Additionally, when starting your novel with a conversation, you immediately get to introduce many features of your story without spelling things out to the reader.
You’ll introduce characters easily just by inserting them into the dialogue, but you’ll also introduce how they speak, who they are, what their perspective is, and the relationship with the people they are speaking with.
If you decide to begin your novel this way, take some time to address who is speaking and what they are speaking about, as well as why they are talking at all.
Think about how this conversation occurring at the beginning of the novel will set the tone for the rest of your book, as beginning with dialogue already places a heavier emphasis on character over other features like description and narration.
Will you subvert that expectation later on by hardly using conversation? Or is this dialogue an indication of how the rest of your novel will read?
Neither choice is incorrect, but you should have an answer of some sort and understand how beginning your novel in the midst of a conversation will set the tone for your story, as you are letting your characters introduce the narrative, and not yourself nor the narrator.
2 | Using an Internal Monologue
One of the prime strengths of prose is its ability to explore the internal. Unlike screenwriting or playwriting, the internal world of our characters can be easily explored in a novel.
Starting your novel with an internal monologue, as a result, immediately indicates that this piece will be rooted in internal dilemmas as much as external, if not more so, and that your novel will use the power of prose to speak directly to your reader.
This immediately gives the reader a singular viewpoint from one character – not necessarily the main one – that will affect the lens through which the reader views the rest of the story.
It usually creates a bias in the favor of one character – or against another –because as readers we are given a close view of someone’s perspective – much more so than we would if we were to open our novel with a conversation like the previous way to begin a novel.
However, just because you might want to begin your story with an internal monologue doesn’t mean you need to use first-person narration. You can easily opt for close-third narration and produce the same effect if that is closer to your ideal style and voice for this piece.
3 | A Visual Description of Something
A visual description at the start of a novel does exactly as one might expect – it puts an image in the reader's mind and makes a first impression.
However, if you are choosing to show anything with a really descriptive passage, there is a suggestion of significance and importance with this image. This is because it’s the first thing the reader “sees” and if it’s really powerful, something that will linger on the reader’s mind much longer than a line of conversation might.
Often starting visually can be tricky because there is little context to set this visual up, such as the perspective or the reason for said visual. If you were writing a screenplay, this wouldn’t be an issue, as the screenwriting medium requires using visuals and presents actual images. But for prose, visual writing is much more in-depth.
When writing a visual description at the start of your novel, you are forced to use many words to portray a visual that might be just a quick image in a film or play.
However, knowing that, use this to your advantage. Usually, visual descriptions feel slower than other beginnings, though this is not a bad thing, especially given that it is your chance to showcase your voice and style.
As a result, because you cannot ever really “see” this visual description – all of it will exist in the reader’s imagination – take the time to savor this visual description and express it in a way that no image ever could.
4 | A Brief History of World Before the Story
A brief history of the world – be it the family, the town, the actual world – at the beginning of any story immediately puts your story in a “big picture” setting. This is because you are providing narrative prior to this novel, and are therefore putting your own work in the history books, per se.
Many writers today would tell you such an introduction is too much and does far too much “telling” – however that is exactly the point, as this way to begin your novel is your chance to showcase your narrator and your narrator’s voice – something none of the other beginnings have offered.
Even if you have a third-person omniscient narrator, how you choose to detail the history of your story is an indication of the narrator’s style and way they will tell the story.
This type of introduction is highly common in magical realism stories, fables, and fantasy as well as 19th century literature from the likes of Dostoevsky and Dickens. In these types of stories, the narrator always has a clear voice – even if it’s the voice of the author – and so if you are to begin your story this way, you immediately are making an homage to stories with a more present narrator.
Though relaying the history of your story’s world is currently not a trendy way to introduce your story now, it has been done before by some of the greatest writers and will more than likely be done again by future great writers – perhaps even yourself!
5 | Someone Witnessing Something
Often we hear about how every protagonist must be “active,” but the truth is in many literary fiction novels, protagonists are much more passive.
By starting your novel off with your protagonist witnessing something, you immediately create several layers for your story to explore, because more than likely, whatever your character witnessed, they either were not supposed to witness or they now are suddenly associated with something – such as a crime or a plot – that they previously had no intention of joining.
Additionally, by having your protagonist witness – or even listen – to something right away, we are given a chance to see them react to the world via observation.
Unlike the first way we learned to start your novel – in the midst of a conversation – this introduction is much more one-sided, placing more of the perspective on the witnesses’ viewpoint than anyone else’s.
As a result, in beginning your novel this way, you give the reader a clear and tangible way that a certain character sees the world, whilst also adding conflict immediately.
This makes for a unique pace for your novel because while you may have a passive protagonist – though they may actually not be a protagonist but instead a main character, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – by starting off your novel this way, you have taken a passive character and put them in an active situation.
While they may remain passive the entire narrative, dutifully following the protagonist or someone else the full duration of the novel, you have enticed your audience with the power of someone witnessing something, which always suggests something out of the norm.
6 | The Death of Someone
As morbid as it may seem, nothing is nearly so intriguing as death – and this goes for both your characters in your story who must react to this death and the readers following along.
Because of this, more often than not, a death – especially a less than straightforward one – at the beginning of any novel immediately hooks readers in. However, just because that is the case, doesn’t mean you can just add a dead body to the first page of your novel and make people interested.
The death of a character must have meaning and must relate to the rest of your story – if only as a segue to the next chapter – otherwise it be seen as a cheap ploy to get readers interested.
For that reason, you need to understand who this person was that has passed and whether they are important to the characters in your story.
You may be surprised to hear that this person doesn’t need to be important or even relevant, especially if your novel is about normalizing death or addressing how people throughout history must become accustomed to death to survive.
Then, you must understand that a death at the beginning of a novel immediately creates a dark or dramatic undertone for your story. Whether you choose to subvert that deliberately or not is up to you, but is important to recognize the immediate tone that is set with a death at the beginning of a novel.
Should you choose for a death to occur right away, take some time to consider the meaning of this death for your story and why you believe your story needs this type of start.
When done well, this type of beginning can be very powerful, such as in Javier Mariá’s novel, A Heart So White, but if done without intention, it can appear to be very sloppy.
7 | A Passage About Someone Besides Your Main Character
Most of the ways to start your novel have focused on introducing key elements of your story. But many novelists have begun novels by focusing on something or someone completely unrelated.
Much like the visual description mentioned earlier, dedicating a passage to someone besides your main character or protagonist is a great way to shift the perspective of your story, making it a bit wider and well-rounded without taking the full leap to an omniscient narrator who relays the history of the world.
This way to begin your novel works especially well with novels that contain a separate main character and protagonist, such as in The Great Gatsby, as it immediately sets this dynamic up.
Though this can be written in any style of narration, when written in first-person narration it offers us a version of an internal monologue, but one that is less self-centered and comes off as fascination.
In fact, beginning a novel with a focus on someone who isn’t the main character tends to suggest a fascination or a deep observation of someone else, which in turns suggests a less biased or unreliable narrative.
However, even if you choose to begin your novel discussing someone else besides your main character, understand that readers will search for a relationship between the person you discuss at the beginning and the main character you introduce either at the same time, or later.
Additionally, keep in mind that you may disorient readers into thinking whoever you introduce first is the main character. Instead of seeing this as a negative, however, you can use this knowledge to deliberately lead your readers towards loving a certain character right away only to switch the focus.
As you can see, there are numerous ways to begin your next novel and these seven ways only scratch the surface. Even if none of these ways to begin your novel suit your story, remember to consider what first impression your beginning will leave your reader and what you want them to feel right away. More often than not, this will guide you straight to the best beginning for your story.