I love writing the beginning of a novel. I must, I have half a dozen in my “to write” folder that are still waiting for a middle and end to be written.
The beginning, or Act One, of a book is where the magic kicks off. You’re creating new characters, their world, their hopes and desires (aka, their motivations), your planting seeds of what is to come. The dramatic question is set up and asked, and you’re teeing up the football that is the inciting incident.
There’s a lot going on here!
Let’s define some terms here:
- Worldbuilding – This isn’t just for Science Fiction. Your setting may be in the here and now, but your main character’s world needs to be established. What’s our hero’s normal? In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s world is a working farm, where she isn’t raised by her parents but her Aunt and Uncle. It’s the past, Kansas, and she feels in the way. She’s a burden on her Aunt and Uncle, she gets in the way of the farmhands, and a nasty neighbor has it out for her. Her best friend is a dog.
- Character Building. We meet and get to know Dorothy, a young reckless teen, but scratch the surface and her insecurities come boilingng out. In the movie, we meet the farmhands and their chief character trait, who become the main players in the story (albeit in different forms).
- Character Arc: Your hero is flawed, and in the course of the story, your character will be changed by the circumstances encountered.
- Dramatic Question: This typically encompasses the hero’s character arc. Will Dorothy find her way home? Will Luke become a Jedi? These aren’t difficult questions, but the dramatic question becomes the spine of your story. Things that don’t relate to the question can be trimmed away.
- Inciting Incident: That’s the no-going-back point. It is NOT when Dorothy runs away, it is when she opens the door on Oz.
There are many methods to start the first page. Your best bet is to start with Action, something that typifies the hero’s normal. In my book Me and the Maniac in Outer Space, Hud is contemplating the hell that is middle school in the boy’s locker room, where he is frequently assaulted by the school bully. That beating is interrupted by his best friend the Maniac.
My novel Do Angels Still Fall? began in France during the plague as the angel Donel conducted his charge to the afterlife who asked the title question, something the angel had never considered before. This established Donel’s world of flesh, spirit, and time displacement, and ushered him to this new normal of mentoring a child of today.
Another tried and true method is to drop right into the midst of Act Two action, then either jumping back to Act One (as in cold openings of TV shows… 3 day earlier…) or using flashbacks to bring us up to speed.
Framing devices are also possible, in which the “frame” is someone else telling the story, or the hero’s older self looking back.
The key is to start as late in the story as you can without losing critical detail.
From there, creatively establish whatever else is required of world, relations, motivations, and drive to that inciting incident that disrupts the old normal and forces the hero to move forward to the new normal.
Then it’s. On to Act Two. Tomorrow…