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How to Start a Novel

Want to know how to start a novel? Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

how to start a novel, starting a book
Want to know how to start a novel? Make sure to avoid these cliched novel openings.

How to Start a Novel: What Not to Do

Waking Up

DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…

Regaining Consciousness

This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.

Scene Setting

People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.

Emotional Scene Setting

The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.

Normal

This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)

Backstory

A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

Starting a Book the Right Way

If you’re feeling even more confused about how to start a novel, let me clarify. A good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Establish — and Deliver — the Promise of Your Novel

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider when you’re starting a book. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Check out my post on setting reader expectations for more on this concept.

Wondering how to apply this advice on how to start a novel to your specific story? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor.

References in your Story Setting

Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a story setting:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990’s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.
Jac

story setting, setting the scene
Sure, you can hang on to this ol’ guy to play your NKOTB tapes…but he probably doesn’t belong in your story setting.

Remember Your Audience

While Jac is writing for a younger audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picture book to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references in the story setting.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that setting the scene in the 90’s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

References in Your Story Setting: Options

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like MG and YA, have lots of opportunities for setting the scene with specific details. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

References From Our World

If you use references from our world, you can make your story setting seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

Parodying References

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

Create Your Own References

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

No References

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story setting if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, she’s setting the scene with hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

References Should Augment the Story

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references is that they either seem tacked on to a novel setting, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80’s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90’s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

Is your story setting muddied with outdated references? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you identify what to keep and what to weed out.

How Many Characters in a Novel?

Many beginning writers wonder, “How many characters in a novel?” And, unfortunately, many writers approach this question by assembling a character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new secondary characters for her to meet!)

how many characters in a novel, secondary characters
How many characters in a novel? If your cast is starting to feel like a crowd, it’s time to think about paring down your secondary characters.

How Many Characters in a Novel?

If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.

When you’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of secondary characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.

Valid Reasons to Introduce Characters

  1. They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
  2. You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.

Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.

Cutting or Combining Characters

If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your secondary characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?

If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new secondary characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.

Strive for Clarity and Simplicity in Your Writing

Don’t forget that you’re the one creating characters in your story. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. When we’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of secondary characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.

Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.

Struggling with when and how to add secondary characters to your work? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.

Scene Writing: What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon dead scene writing. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing descriptions or witty banter.

scene writing, writing a scene
Sure, witty banter is fun to write…but is it moving your plot forward, or is it just brain candy?

Why Dead Scene Writing Happens

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scene writing. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing while writing a scene”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

Editors And Agents Are Looking For Story

When you find scene writing in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

An author who’s writing a scene that’s heavy on conversation usually intends for it to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

Layer in Information and Backstory

When you’re writing a scene, introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to worldbuild and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all in one burst of scene writing. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

“What Happens Here?”

As you can see, the answer to both examples of scene writing is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about writing a scene after this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

Having trouble with your scene writing? Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you weed out the fluff and focus on the elements that drive your plot forward.

Fantasy Worldbuilding: A Magic of Convenience

There’s tons of fantasy worldbuilding going on nowadays, with all the manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers. This can be fun and interesting, but the more I read of them, the more a strange habit rears its little head. Writing magic systems is difficult work, since magic is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your novel worldbuilding, but the plot, too.

fantasy worldbuilding, writing magic systems
In fantasy worldbuilding, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader.

An Example of Convenient Fantasy Worldbuilding

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at how you’re writing magic systems. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

Luck, Accidents, and Coincidences Feel Cheap to Readers

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read to see a magical coincidence at work. (More about writing believeble characters.) Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

In fantasy worldbuilding, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

When You’re Writing Magic Systems, Set the Rules Early On

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy worldbuilding in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising the stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy in fantasy worldbuilding. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Challenge Yourself to Overcome Writerly Laziness or Convenience

Next time you work on fantasy worldbuilding, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, you will have put the work into writing magic systems where the rules of their magic are clear. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

If you want to master fantasy worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com