Finding Your Novel's Starting Line

Fri Mar 11 2016

Starting a race is easy. The starting line is right there, marked on the ground for all to see. Starting a novel is much harder. My twitter buddy @AmyManwarren asked for advice on knowing where to start a novel, and I can understand why. The starting line could be anywhere, and there's no race official to tell you where it is.

An opening scene's jobs

It helps to know what an opening scene has to achieve. If you understand an opening scene's jobs, picking the right opening scene is often far easier. I think an opening scene has four main jobs.

  1. Hook the reader. First and foremost, your opening scene must hook us, by making us curious about something that feels meaningful. Heck, your opening sentences need to do this. If a reader picks up your book in the store or clicks through to Amazon's "Look Inside" the book thing, your opening sentences may be the only chance you have to capture that reader's interest. Don't waste that opportunity on something boring, like the cliché of a character waking up in the morning. Nobody cares about that. Jump ahead to the part where the baby barfs up blood right as the mom is heading out to work. The main curiosity hook is obvious: "Oh my god! What's wrong with the baby?" But layered underneath it is a secondary question relating to the mom's job since she's going to be driving the baby to the hospital instead of going to work. The more elements of curiosity you can layer into your story's opening, the stronger the hook.

  2. Give us something to care about. There's a million ways of throwing an uncertain situation at the reader to elicit curiosity. But none of them matter unless readers understand why they should care about the answer. Readers need to see that something meaningful is at stake in the situation, or why should we care? What counts as meaningful stakes depends a lot on the story's genre and its intended audience. If your target audience is college guys in their early 20s, the blood-barfing baby may not really grab them. (No offense, guys, but I remember what being that age was like.) But if you're aiming at mature adults, most of them will have kids too and will be able to relate much more personally to that situation. I can't give you a specific formula for determining whether readers will care, but you should at least be able to look at your opening scene and point to the reasons why your target audience will care.

  3. Show a logical jumping off point for the rest of the story. It's no good opening with the blood-barfing baby if that has nothing to do with what follows. If the baby turns out to be fine (just a bit of acid reflux--no wonder she's had such trouble sleeping!--easily cured with Xanax) and the whole incident never matters after that, then why start there? Why even have that in the story at all? Whatever we see happening in the opening scene, it should set things in motion or in some way affect the characters moving forward. If it doesn't do either of those things, pick a different opening.

  4. Establish the setting. A novel is kind of like a vacation, where instead of actually going somewhere you only go somewhere in your imagination. An opening scene that fails to clearly convey where and when the story takes place leaves us uncertain that we want to go on that vacation. This one is usually pretty easy to satisfy, but still, it's worth taking a moment to verify that the opening scene isn't so generic that we won't get a clear sense of the time and place.

What are the options?

Most openings fall into one of these categories.

Whatever you pick for your opening, it must be an active scene. We need to have a sense of change. Of something happening. The change can be external or internal, but whatever it is, readers need to come away with a strong sense that something important is different due to the events of the scene.

Common problems

Let me wrap up by outlining the most common problems I see with the opening scenes in clients' novels, and what you can do about them.

A common solution

The thing about opening scene problems is that no matter which one you're dealing with, the solution is nearly always the same: cut whatever you've started with. Don't throw it away. Keep it in your clip file. But chances are you already have something in your draft that would serve. All you need to do is remove the problem scene and anything else up to the first moment in the story that satisfies an opening scene's four jobs.