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Where to start novel (1 Viewer)

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Kelton

Member
I have most the story mapped out in my head. Just not sure where to start. I was thinking about using the first few chapters to introduce and develop the characters. Like one character a chapter until they get together. But I heard it was important to get the main story going in the first chapter. The way I was thinking would introduce some subplots but the main story wouldn't really get going until chapter 3 or 4. Should I just start where the plot starts and just go from there? Is using the first chapters to introduce characters a bad idea?
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
There are no rules for this. There is advice which may or may not be correct, because the people giving the advice are not writing your book. Everything I'm about to write below is food for thought, not advice on how you should proceed.

The rule of thumb is that you want to get your story going to capture and maintain the reader's interest. However, I could show you exceptions from best selling authors, indicating that a book can sell and become popular without doing that.

For someone who's not a best-selling author, I consider it smart to learn the rules before breaking the rules.

Of course, I've seen quite a few works that follow one character at a time until they meet ... books and screenplays. These are typically experienced writers who know what they are doing and did it well, or I wouldn't have seen their work. ;-)

So how do they accomplish that? What they write is interesting ... entertaining. I know authors who could start with a few pages about eating breakfast and make it fascinating reading. The typical beginner attempting that? No.

If you write your first three chapters as you described, probably every beta reader is going to tell you it's wrong, and they're going to do that by rote whether their evaluation is wrong or right. The only true indicator is whether you make those three chapters entertaining and they draw the reader further into your story. Whether you accomplish that is strictly up to the quality of your authorship.

So what's the conclusion here? It probably doesn't matter which way you go. If you write well, you can sell those chapters the way you've planned them. If you don't write well, the main action starting in chapter one or four will be just as poorly done.

It's good for you to read and consider "writing how to's". The more you know, the better off you are. But these rules of thumb do not provide answers for every author and every manuscript. My own first novel spent about three chapters settling in. One beta reader strongly criticized that. I didn't change those chapters. No one who read the book for pleasure mentioned it at all. I sort of felt like a reader needed to get to know my characters so in chapter four, when the assassins show up, the reader would care if the targets lived or died. LOL

If this is your first novel attempted, the most important thing is to write it and finish it and learn from the experience.
 
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EternalGreen

Senior Member
One passage at a time.

You think I'm being smart with you, but no. Just make sure you write a few long passages each day and the rest falls into place.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
A good piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut is to “start as close to the end as possible” So, don’t be farting around on “introductory chapters”, basically. Give the reader the information they need (and only what they need) and start with what’s important.

Remember, when you submit a novel you only usually send a few thousand words. The expectation is that those few thousand words will contain actual story, movement that matters, not meandering wankery of character studies or essays on setting.

If your story “won’t really get going until chapter three”, then cut out chapters one and two. You don’t need ‘em.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
A good piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut is to “start as close to the end as possible” So, don’t be farting around on “introductory chapters”, basically. Give the reader the information they need (and only what they need) and start with what’s important.

Remember, when you submit a novel you only usually send a few thousand words. The expectation is that those few thousand words will contain actual story, movement that matters, not meandering wankery of character studies or essays on setting.

If your story “won’t really get going until chapter three”, then cut out chapters one and two. You don’t need ‘em.

I love Vonnegut - and actually have a signed copy of Hocus Pocus. I find his writing deliciously irreverent and a joy to read.

Ok - that said; the maxim I've heard is to start in the middle. My take on that advice is to find a part of your story that introduces the MC or the central problem he/she must surmount, wind it back a few frames, and start writing there. IMO too often people look for an action scene, but it doesn't have to be - just find something that sets the character off balance and will push them into your tale.

It could be a simple phone call from a stranger asking for their spouse; or it might be being called in to stand trial for a crime they did or didn't commit. It's a tipping point that will compel your reader to continue to turn pages.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I love Vonnegut - and actually have a signed copy of Hocus Pocus. I find his writing deliciously irreverent and a joy to read.

Ok - that said; the maxim I've heard is to start in the middle. My take on that advice is to find a part of your story that introduces the MC or the central problem he/she must surmount, wind it back a few frames, and start writing there. IMO too often people look for an action scene, but it doesn't have to be - just find something that sets the character off balance and will push them into your tale.

It could be a simple phone call from a stranger asking for their spouse; or it might be being called in to stand trial for a crime they did or didn't commit. It's a tipping point that will compel your reader to continue to turn pages.

yeah, so I think the key phrase in Vonnegut’s advice is “as possible”.

What he’s saying is to start at the beginning of the story - as in, where the story itself actually starts, not before it and not after.

It can be difficult to gauge this, but it’s important and “as close to the end as possible” makes sense if we look at examples in context.

In the movie Titanic, the story does not start with showing the Titanic’s construction (despite it being possibly “relevant”) nor exploring the background of the protagonists (also possibly “relevant”. It starts with the ship being launched because the story, the intrigue, is actually about the voyage and the fate of the passengers who sail on it. Why is that? Well, because the writers made the decision that the part before the ship launching was not needed for the story they were telling. It also didn’t start when the ship is actually sinking, because that would not make sense, the story would not work, it would be confusing, and therefore the “...as possible” part of Vonnegut’s advice would not work.

I am not saying the beginning chapter of the story needs to be an action scene. Only that whatever kind of scene it is, it needs to be important to the story, not there to establish background or other information that can possibly be provided through other means. Introductory scenes for people or things are often not necessary: One can learn lots about a ship through simply watching it sink.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Let's see if I can think of a book that doesn't start "as close to the end as possible." Hmmm . . . Bartleby? The novella doesn't start with Bartleby walking through the door, although that would "make sense." There are several pages of introductory text and even a few "scenes" before he does (I've grown to hate that word when talking about prose.)

Melville could've explained as he went, but the introduction is quite rich, even if it's not strictly "necessary" to the plot.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Let's see if I can think of a book that doesn't start "as close to the end as possible." Hmmm . . . Bartleby? The novella doesn't start with Bartleby walking through the door, although that would "make sense." There are several pages of introductory text and even a few "scenes" before he does (I've grown to hate that word when talking about prose.)

Melville could've explained as he went, but the introduction is quite rich, even if it's not strictly "necessary" to the plot.

Would the story have been lesser without the introductory text? If the answer to that is 'yes', then it's still 'starting the story as close to the end as possible', because it would not have been 'possible' to start it any later without damaging the story.

Some stories require 'introductory scenes'. Titanic actually starts with the old woman and the expedition to recover the wreck. This seems to be pure background, rife with exposition and historical dump. However it is still required in order to provide one of the main character arcs closure at the end. It also doesn't drag on overmuch and very much is 'necessary' to understanding the story (though it doesn't necessarily feel that way at the time). Therefore, it is highly necessary. The movie would not completely work without it.

If it would not have been lesser, if it would have been the same or better, then Melville wrote poorly, or at least inefficiently (inefficient writing is, at a certain point, the same as poor writing). To be clear, this is often subjective and there are lots of good writers who I think do get this wrong sometimes.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Would the story have been lesser without the introductory text? If the answer to that is 'yes', then it's still 'starting the story as close to the end as possible', because it would not have been 'possible' to start it any later without damaging the story.

That's...almost literally tautological and not helpful at all.
 

WailingDusk

Senior Member
Beginnings are hard. I lost count of how many times I rewrote my first paragraphs after like 30. Just remember your first sentence, paragraph and page set the tone for the book. If your first paragraph is lines of character description or daily routines with no foreshadowing, it's best to move the start of the story to later in the plot, closer to the inciting incident. The closer the inciting incident is to the beginning the better. It doesn't have to be the first line, but just make sure your story starts in the right place. It has to make your reader ask questions that they want answers to. It has to make them want to read past that first sentence, and first paragraph. If you find you have too much backstory or narration that drags the pacing, cut it. Readers are much more distracted not than they ever were. You can't have a Tolkien beginning where there are chapters of world-building or backstory. You gotta make that first impression stick.

That's not saying you can't have good world building or backstory, just don't cram them into your first paragraphs. At least this seems to be the general advice of literary agents out there.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
That's...almost literally tautological and not helpful at all.

How is it tautological?

It's not tautological: The story starts when the story starts, that much is up to the writer.

My point is: I would go out on a limb to suggest that a huge number, perhaps a majority, of books fail simply because the author dines out on the reader's patience. You can see examples of this everywhere, in the workshop for instance. Well-written stories that consume themselves with self-indulgent 'background' that is boring, irrelevant, or both.

Most readers don't find the idea of a story 'really starting' in the second, third, fifth or tenth chapter optimal. The story should start when the writing starts. Every word written from the first sentence should be part of a single, continuous movement toward the ending. There is no point in adding anything else besides what matters to the story. Nobody wants anything else besides what matters to the story. Subplots are fine, but subplots should nevertheless be part of The Story (not secondary tack-ons). Worldbuilding is fine, but worldbuilding should also be part of The Story (not a side-essay). The list goes on: Character backstory? It needs to be part of the story, intrinsic not extraneous, relevant, useful. Description? Nobody cares about the design of chairs that aren't sat on (and by somebody who we care about).

Combine all these into one careful pot, and start cooking. But start cooking as close to dinnertime as possible, not hours, a day, a week before. Write it how you like, but write it beginning as close to the end as you can get away with, as close as that allows NOTHING to be lost along the way. This is what Vonnegut is saying. Makes perfect sense to me.
 
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EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
I have a long web-essay on starts that you are welcome to read. You are supposed to get the link from my signature.

To sell your book, you want as interesting of start as possible. This is not necessarily the best strategy for readers, and in fact I prefer reading a book that starts at the start of the story (precipitating event).

But a chapter describing characters sounds boring. Boringness won't achieve either goal.

Starting with something unrelated to the story is a technique. It can present character (and setting), but it has to be interesting. Like having the main character catch a thief. The Winter of Our Discontent (one of my examples) begins with a conversation that accomplishes setting and character.
 

stony

Senior Member
How is it tautological?

It's not tautological: The story starts when the story starts, that much is up to the writer.

My point is: I would go out on a limb to suggest that a huge number, perhaps a majority, of books fail simply because the author dines out on the reader's patience. You can see examples of this everywhere, in the workshop for instance. Well-written stories that consume themselves with self-indulgent 'background' that is boring, irrelevant, or both.

Most readers don't find the idea of a story 'really starting' in the second, third, fifth or tenth chapter optimal. The story should start when the writing starts. Every word written from the first sentence should be part of a single, continuous movement toward the ending. There is no point in adding anything else besides what matters to the story. Nobody wants anything else besides what matters to the story. Subplots are fine, but subplots should nevertheless be part of The Story (not secondary tack-ons). Worldbuilding is fine, but worldbuilding should also be part of The Story (not a side-essay). The list goes on: Character backstory? It needs to be part of the story, intrinsic not extraneous, relevant, useful. Description? Nobody cares about the design of chairs that aren't sat on (and by somebody who we care about).

Combine all these into one careful pot, and start cooking. But start cooking as close to dinnertime as possible, not hours, a day, a week before. Write it how you like, but write it beginning as close to the end as you can get away with, as close as that allows NOTHING to be lost along the way. This is what Vonnegut is saying. Makes perfect sense to me.

I can't agree with you more here. That's why good opening hooks are important as well. The hook will buy the writer a little time to setup the scene before delivering some goods. And well-placed hooks at any part of the story signals to the reader that a payoff is coming soon. I noticed how Stephen King did this when I read The Dead Zone recently. There's a scene in a taxi cab and he tells you the driver is going to die just before the driver goes on a long tangent that may otherwise have left the reader wondering if it was worth reading through. Of course the tangent was well-written and interesting too but the hook just before it ensured I wasn't putting the book down for anything until I found out what happened.

By 'hooks' I mean promises. Make promises early and often that scenes worth reading are coming and then deliver. That's how you keep them from putting the book down.
 

bazz cargo

Retired Supervisor
Every book is different. I try to find a hook. My favourite is Call Me Ishmael. Good luck
I have most the story mapped out in my head. Just not sure where to start. I was thinking about using the first few chapters to introduce and develop the characters. Like one character a chapter until they get together. But I heard it was important to get the main story going in the first chapter. The way I was thinking would introduce some subplots but the main story wouldn't really get going until chapter 3 or 4. Should I just start where the plot starts and just go from there? Is using the first chapters to introduce characters a bad idea?
 

Kelton

Member
Thanks everyone! I was originally planning on starting the main plot in the first chapter. I just thought having the characters developed more before hand would be nice. One character has a life changing event a week before the main story starts, but I can relay that with dialogue. Anyways, I have everything flowing quite nicely.
 

Kelton

Member
I wasn't planning on literally describing the characters for a chapter. I meant I would show their character and personality though individual stories that lead to the main plot beginning. But nevermind, I decided to start with the main plot and develop them from there.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I wasn't planning on literally describing the characters for a chapter. I meant I would show their character and personality though individual stories that lead to the main plot beginning. But nevermind, I decided to start with the main plot and develop them from there.

That's what I was talking about. You've decided to dispense with that, but if you build a story around a character for either a chapter, or a few scenes, I don't see a problem as long as it's a compelling read.

A few years ago, a writer named Paul Draker came to the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum and asked if anyone would like to read and review his first novel. Technically, that was a no-no insofar as Amazon ToS goes, but a lot of newbie authors were unaware of the rule, and did it anyway.

I often took a look, and Paul was one of only four authors over the course of several years I decided was worth reading. He really has natural talent. His first book is New Year's Island. It's about a group of people invited to an island for a "Survivor" type of contest. In his book, the concept "sole survivor" is real, though his contestants were unaware.

The book starts out with each contestant on the way to the island, and covers their journey and some background. Each contestant had something in common with the others, and it became interesting to see just how each fit the mold. It worked. I found the book to be riveting, even if one element of the ending was over the top.

Paul self-published, then wrote a second book and self-published it, too. He never found a mainstream publisher, and that's a shame. His writing deserves it. Evidently, the failure to sell to a NY house discouraged him, because he never authored a planned third novel, and I thought that was a shame. I enjoyed the two he wrote, and his genre is not in my wheelhouse. When I really enjoy something outside of my list of main interests, I consider it a very good signal the writing is excellent.

My point is, if you write it well, it works.
 
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Tettsuo

WF Veterans
I have most the story mapped out in my head. Just not sure where to start. I was thinking about using the first few chapters to introduce and develop the characters. Like one character a chapter until they get together. But I heard it was important to get the main story going in the first chapter. The way I was thinking would introduce some subplots but the main story wouldn't really get going until chapter 3 or 4. Should I just start where the plot starts and just go from there? Is using the first chapters to introduce characters a bad idea?
You start at the beginning.

Instead of trying to structure the story strategically, focus on the events that move the character through each event. The characters with fall in where they are required to fall in.

Bottom line, write the story and edit it strategically after it's done.
 

apocalypsegal

Senior Member
How is it tautological?

It's not tautological: The story starts when the story starts, that much is up to the writer.

My point is: I would go out on a limb to suggest that a huge number, perhaps a majority, of books fail simply because the author dines out on the reader's patience. You can see examples of this everywhere, in the workshop for instance. Well-written stories that consume themselves with self-indulgent 'background' that is boring, irrelevant, or both.

Most readers don't find the idea of a story 'really starting' in the second, third, fifth or tenth chapter optimal. The story should start when the writing starts. Every word written from the first sentence should be part of a single, continuous movement toward the ending. There is no point in adding anything else besides what matters to the story. Nobody wants anything else besides what matters to the story. Subplots are fine, but subplots should nevertheless be part of The Story (not secondary tack-ons). Worldbuilding is fine, but worldbuilding should also be part of The Story (not a side-essay). The list goes on: Character backstory? It needs to be part of the story, intrinsic not extraneous, relevant, useful. Description? Nobody cares about the design of chairs that aren't sat on (and by somebody who we care about).

Combine all these into one careful pot, and start cooking. But start cooking as close to dinnertime as possible, not hours, a day, a week before. Write it how you like, but write it beginning as close to the end as you can get away with, as close as that allows NOTHING to be lost along the way. This is what Vonnegut is saying. Makes perfect sense to me.


I agree with all of this.

The thing is, it doesn't matter where you start with the first draft. The important thing is that you start writing. You will end up editing the manuscript after you finish, and most of this back story stuff will have to go. Some of it can be sprinkled in as needed, but the majority of all this world building and character worksheet stuff is only needed by the writer. The reader won't care at all, and they especially won't care about how hard you worked on it, or how long it took you to come up with it.
 

LadySilence

Senior Member
Don't think about it too much, just start.
It doesn't matter if it's the first chapter, or it's just sentences. You write everything down.
Remember that the first draft is never final.
You will change often.
 
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