Writing the Beginning of Your Novel

How important is the beginning of your novel? As a reader, I would say paramount. Typically, if I am not intrigued within the first 20 pages, I’ll exchange the book for a better one and forget it ever existed.

But, as a writer, how can I craft a novel opening that will prevent future readers from closing it for good? Here is what I have learned from experience:

Tip #1: Know the End from the Beginning

Even if you have the vaguest idea of how you want your novel to end, this will help you create a suitable opening scene. You want the beginning of your novel to do three things: (1) Introduce the main character(s), (2) Introduce the main conflict(s), and (3) Establish an overarching theme. If you know how it is going to end, then you already know who your main characters are, you know what the main conflict is and where it’s going to lead, and you know the unifying idea of your story. Knowing these things from the beginning will keep you from meandering in an effort to find them as you go.

Some writers like finding the story along the way, which is fine, of course. It might create more work in the future editing process, but there is no “wrong” way to go about it. If you have already started a novel, and you want to go back and ensure the three aforementioned elements are there, then do that. Create an outline of what you have so as you write toward the conclusion, you are aware of all the threads you’ll need to wrap up.

Tip #2: Foreshadow

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You can pull readers in rather quickly with some subtle foreshadowing in the beginning of your novel. If you have a great battle planned down the road, insert something within the first 10-20 pages that foreshadows that event. Foreshadowing promises the reader that reading to the end of the book will be worthwhile. Just make sure you don’t disappoint them. 😉

Tip #3: Make Something Happen

Do not bog the reader down with pure exposition from the very start. If you want to avoid losing readers after the first 20 pages, make those first 20 pages interesting! This doesn’t mean writing an opening battle scene or a homicide as your hook, although they may be appropriate introductions depending on your genre/plot/etc. There are subtler ways to make your opening scene interesting, such as:

  1. Your protagonist meets a peculiar character who disrupts their current routine/view of the world.
  2. Your protagonist is in an accident.
  3. Your protagonist notices odd changes in the weather.

Whatever the opening scene, make it mysterious and gripping, and, obviously, make it directly tie into your main plot. You wouldn’t want to draw the reader into your story with an accident scene, only for that event to be all but forgotten or inconsequential within fifty pages. Your opening scene should be the “inciting incident,” or what gets your plot rolling.

Think of your hook as the start of a roller coaster. As you move slowly to the top, you know that at a certain point, you will have to go down. In a way, this is how you instill suspense — the reader should always know, based on current events, that Something Big Will Happen if the plot stays on course, even if they don’t know exactly what that Something will be.

I have read novels that start with the protagonist waking up, getting ready, going to school, and basically experiencing a normal day for a dozen pages or more. This can be entertaining if done correctly. Maybe your protagonist is hilarious. Maybe you want to draw out normalcy just long enough so the Inciting Incident will shock the reader. That doesn’t mean your opening scene can’t be interesting. A “normal” day for someone else could be a very strange day for your reader, particularly if your novel is set in a different time period or on a different world. If you need to establish “normal” before you introduce chaos, make that “normal” different from the average person’s “normal.” Or, at the very least, make your characters interesting.

Tip #4: Surprise!

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Surprise the reader with the unexpected. If your protagonist is in a car accident in the opening scene, the reader might expect the next scene to be the protagonist waking up in a hospital with some minor injuries. You can then surprise the reader if your character ends up missing a limb, or gaining a superpower, or with no injuries at all. Rule of thumb: steer clear of the obvious unless absolutely necessary. You’ll want to surprise the reader at every turn, if possible.

Tip #5: Make the Reader Curious

Build anticipation by writing scenes — right from the beginning — that require certain reactions. For example, if your protagonist stays out too late one night, and you know their mother is strict based on a conversation your protagonist had with her that morning, then the reader should expect the protagonist to face the consequences of staying up past curfew. That expectation comes with anticipation.

This is especially crucial if you are writing a romance novel. Romance novels are so popular because readers go into every one expecting a certain outcome: the love interests get together. The whole point of the novel, then, is not necessarily to shock the reader with every turn of the page — although that might be the case depending on the author — but to build anticipation of the inevitable ending. Even a predictable novel can be fun if curiosity is the driving force behind the reader.

Any Thoughts?

Were these five tips helpful? Need more advice? Or would you like to add to what’s already listed above? Don’t hesitate to drop a comment below! 🙂 👇

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