Starting in the Right Place

honing the craft plotting revising revision Aug 16, 2021

Post by Katie Wall.

The opening pages of a novel are key. They set the stage not only for the story to come, but are also the hook that should draw the reader in and keep them from putting the book down. 

There are two main traps that I see writers fall into when choosing where to start their novels.

First, there’s the writer who feels that a lot of backstory is needed for the reader to understand what’s going on. They think that their readers won’t be able to follow the action or come to care about their protagonist unless they explain intricate details of how their fictional world works or that Susie hates strawberries because when she was five she ate so many that she made herself sick.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. It keeps the reader from the action for too long, which means the reader is more likely to put down the book before getting past the backstory.

It also is a lazy way out of weaving world-building and backstory more organically into the story itself. Why do I think it’s lazy? Because it’s a way of getting all of your own thoughts in order as the writer—setting the stage for the story you’re getting ready to tell—without fully taking into account what your reader is looking for (genre expectations) and what their experience will be. It’s easy to spend ten pages describing the world so that you can just reference things casually once you start with the action. It’s harder, but well worth the effort, to start the story where the action starts and weave the backstory and world-building in organically, sculpting your world and characters alongside the action.

I see this trap a lot with prologues: a writer will often think that they must include certain information before the action starts, so they decide to do that in a prologue because they know that the information doesn’t really fit with the start of the story. It may surprise you to know that many readers skip prologues altogether, but they figure out the story perfectly anyway! If you are tempted to add a prologue to your book, make sure it is 1000% necessary. Chances are, you can weave in the necessary information in the story itself if you force yourself to find a way.

The second trap writers often fall into with their story openings is starting too late. There’s a lot of advice out there now to “start the story where the action starts” or even “start the story just after things really get moving.” The result, however, is that sometimes then readers haven’t been given a chance to care about the protagonist before we learn they’re sentenced to death (or whatever the inciting incident might be), and they’re left wondering “why does this even matter?”—definitely not what you want your readers to be thinking!

While I do agree that it’s important to start the story where the action is, I think it’s also crucial to set up the story well. In this way, you want to identify your inciting incident and then back up to just before that incident. We want to get a small glimpse of your character’s “normal” that is about to be irrevocably shattered. This gives your reader a chance to identify with your protagonist and begin to care about them. They will understand the importance and effect of the inciting incident because you’ve given them this insight.

Now, if you’re just starting to plot or draft a novel, you might feel stuck trying to pick the perfect starting point. I’ll let you in on a secret: the place you start your first draft does not have to be your story’s start forever.

Really! When you go back and revise you will most likely see ways that you can shift or change the opening scene to more fully set up and support your protagonist’s arc of change, the plot arc, and your story guiding principle. Revising is a huge part of the process of writing a book, and these crucial first pages are no exception.

So take a step back and stop pressuring yourself to pick the perfect starting point at the beginning of the writing process. Trust that you—with feedback from a book coach, editor, beta readers, etc.—will be able to adjust and polish your novel’s beginning to solidly hook your readers.

That being said, I do want to mention one key aspect of a story’s start. You want to have an echo of the end in the beginning. What do I mean by this? Whatever internal belief your character is unlearning, or whatever goal they are motivated toward, needs to be hinted at from the very beginning of the book. After finishing your novel the reader ought to have a newfound appreciation for how this core of your novel is woven deeply into every scene—including the beginning.

This is where being a plotter or planner/plantser gives you an advantage from the start, since you can outline the character and plot arcs and create this echo from the get-go. Pantsers often have to do major revisions—even rewriting major portions of the manuscript—to achieve this.

If you’re ready for some assistance with planning your novel, I’d love to walk alongside you in that process! If you already have a draft, check out my first pages evaluation service or manuscript foundations assessment. And if you’re looking for feedback paired with community, join the waitlist for the next round of my first pages group coaching program.

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