Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely tempting. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on beginning a book!
Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring
The other day, I was working on an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been — when you’re beginning a book, that’s prime real estate. And the novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes in writing: when they’re too high right off the bat, it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.
So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.
The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath. So how should we look at starting a novel?
How to Begin a Novel
Instead of taking this dramatic approach when beginning a book (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and exposition in writing. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.
When we’re starting a novel here, instead, readers see your characters in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.
By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.
Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much
Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So when you’re beginning a novel, it’s ideal to start with action — but maybe not too much action.
And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.
When you’re starting a novel, go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.
Are you beginning a book? Do you need help nailing your novel beginning? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.