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A Writer's Toolkit: Beginning your Novel

I wish there was a way to wave a magic wand and the beginning of a novel would suddenly appear. It doesn’t work like that, as any author who has spent months, sometimes years (or even decades) waiting for that first line to come will tell you. This discussion considers some of the ideas that need to be in place to begin your story.

The Two Ideas

It is not sufficient simply to have an idea. In an essay at the end of The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story, Stephen Donaldson describes how, as an author, he needs two ideas. The way I see this is that the first idea is “the setting” and the second is “the action” which sets the story in motion. An example might be:

The story is set in Casablanca in 1941 and a local nightclub attracts French and German officials as well as refugees hoping to reach the United States, which is still neutral in the war.

That in itself is insufficient for the story although it may well give rise to some colourful descriptions of North Africa during wartime. The plot comes to life when we include characters such as nightclub owner Rick Blaine and his former lover Ilsa Lund. With their backgrounds and motivations, they drive the plot forward, as well as some of the most emotive flashback scenes as we see their relationship in Paris.

Who knows if the ending of Casablanca was as much of a surprise to the authors as it was to the viewer? It doesn’t matter if you change your ending from what you had originally planned. You can weave in the foreshadowing in the second draft.

So – you have your location (geographical and temporal) and you have the characters that are going to set the story in motion. Or perhaps it will be a completely different story if the Nazis decided that Casablanca was a loophole for refugees (like Victor Lazlo) that needed to be closed and the story opened with the whine of Messerschmitt engines as districts of Casablanca burst into flames …

Event- or Character- Led plot

With this in mind, you might want to consider whether you are writing a character- or an event-led story. An event-led story is where things happen to the characters which they can’t necessarily control. If you think of disaster movies (Earthquake, The Towering inferno, Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact), the characters face certain situations which they have to try to overcome. Events HAPPEN to the characters. They cannot actually CONTROL them. In a volcano story, for example, the characters, fleeing the lava flow, may be in spitting distance of safety, only an after-shock to split open a huge rift to open between them and their destination, forcing them to take another, more perilous route.

In a character-driven story, although there may be events that effect the characters (a race against time, someone trying to thwart stop the hero or heroine from achieving their goals), it is the characters and their motivations that are important. The story of a man trying to find his sister who went missing while backpacking in Australia will show the protagonist making going places and making connections as he tries to trace his sister’s last movements.

For an extreme character-led plot, I’d direct you to Twelve Angry Men, where “action” in this plot is when one of the Jurors gets up from the table.

First or Third Person

This is a choice down to your preferred writing style. I think the difference between writing in first, second and third person, and even a variety of all three, is something that can be the subject of a separate post. Experiment. Rewrite. See what works. Perhaps one part of the story will work with a third person narrator, and another would work in the form of emails and texts.

Beginning your story

At which point do you want your story to begin. If you have a bomb in the building, does it start with the explosion, or does it start with a timer slowly counting down? Or does it begin with terrorists plotting how and where they can plant a bomb for maximum devastation. It depends on whether your story is one about prevention, about discovery or one about the aftermath.

It doesn’t have to be a bomb, of course, it could be a relationship that is about to undergo a significant change.

The beginning of a novel is so critically important: it is what hooks your readers in and draws them into your story. Readers are less generous with their patience these days. You can’t read 100+ pages of a novel before something happens. Many readers won’t invest that much time on trust these days.

Think of some of the novels that you have read: the first line may still be memorable. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “Call me Ishmael”; “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”; “It is a truth universally knowledge, that single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”; “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. Modern novels have to produce their own version of these that may stand the test of time.

The chances are that you won’t know what this line will be from the outset. Come back to this when you have more of an idea of how the story develops, so you can set the mood of the opening line/sentence/paragraph/page as appropriate. Don’t wait for the muse to give it to you.

(There are some authors who are lucky enough to have a cracking opening line before they begin the story, and probably a really inspirational title as well.)

Writing the beginning

The problem is that until the novel is in progress and sometimes not until it is completed will be author know the elements that he or she wishes to convey in the opening paragraph. But until you know how the story starts, you don’t know how it will continue. Catch 22.

I find the best solution to this is to get a voice recorder and simply start dictating a scene. Any scene. Dictation means that you can express your ideas much faster than if you were trying to type, or to handwrite. You can hear your ideas out loud, and if they don’t work then no matter because by closing off some avenues of exploration you will find a series of “what if?” moments which you can explore with your characters. If we know the kind of people these characters are, then we can start moving the narrative forward:

Richard and Eleanor (husband and wife) have recently arrived in their hotel room. They receive a call from reception that a message has been left for Eleanor. Strange – no one knows that they are there. Eleanor pops down to Reception saying she’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Half an hour later she still hasn’t returned …

You could begin your story at any point during this time: Describe how Richard and Eleanor are so happy to be alone and away from it all for the first time in so long; or begin with a sense of anxiety as the phone rings from Reception and a sense of mistrust-perhaps Richard says “did you tell anyone we were here?”; or perhaps the story begins as Richard has been waiting for half an hour waiting for his wife’s return, and of course all sorts of thoughts go through your head when you are waiting for someone to return when they have been way longer than they should have been.

This is a plot that I have generated off the top of my head. If I were to write it, I would probably begin it with Richard’s anxiety, for at this point then the conflict has already begun. Thus in the first page it is easy to summarise the events that have brought them to this place and the reason why Eleanor left the room, it is equally possible to lay down a whole series of false trails: did he imagine the look of anxiety or perhaps even guilt on Eleanor’s face as she started to leave?

Everyone writes their stories in different ways and the first words that you write may not be the first words of the novel. (Rather than telling the whole story chronologically, sometimes it makes more sense to tell some of it in flashback). What is important is that you begin your novel and get some momentum behind you so that you can drive the story forward. If you spend your time waiting for the muse then you may be waiting for a long time. As Pablo Picasso once said “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Some thoughts

Avoid overloading the opening scene with too much description. Too much detail gets in the way of the developing plot, you want to engage your readers as soon as possible. Use descriptive shorthand to establish a scene and add details later, e.g. executive hotel room, budget airline seat, truckers’ café.

If using senses, smell has the most powerful memory trigger. Just take a moment now to think about the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen to see what I mean. Likewise, music quickly conveys a sense of time.

Good luck.

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