This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But come on — you should have seen it by now.
Even when you have a basic idea of your story, sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin it. I’m going to talk a little more about first scenes than first lines, though I’ll mention some first lines, too.
I think one of the best things you can do with your first five or ten pages is get the readers to care about what happens to your main character (or one of them.)
In my opinion, and in the opinion of most editors, a prologue that only serves as backstory is generally a bad idea. It makes a novel feel like it’s taking too long to really get started. You can weave the backstory into the present-day action. Build some mystery and anticipation about past events, and they will thoroughly enjoy it when you reveal what really went down all those years ago.
Even without official prologues, many of us begin the story too soon in the first draft, with too much backstory. Of course you can change this in revision, although it’s a hassle (I speak from experience.)
You need to ask yourself what happens in the story to jog your character out of her usual rut and take her in a different direction. A lot of people refer to that thing, that event that changes everything, as the “inciting incident.”
(Something I have yet to do in my own stories is make the character’s own action lead to the change, rather than having her react to something. For instance, in my favorite movie of all time, Mad Max: Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa changes everything by deciding to rescue the sex slaves of a horrible dictator. And in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Finn rewrites his own destiny and everyone else’s as well by having a crisis of conscience. This leads him to make a daring escape with an imprisoned Resistance fighter.)
In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat (a terrific resource for fiction writers as well), he lays out an outline that establishes a kind of baseline for the main character. Here’s what his life is like, here are some of his issues, and oh, in case you were wondering, here’s the theme, stated by some character or other. The inciting incident (or what he calls “the catalyst”) happens a little ways in.
It’s also possible to have the inciting incident on the first few pages, or even in the first sentence. That’s really up to you. But you don’t want to go too long before that first big thing happens.
As my friend Trish tells her improv students, Start on the Day Everything Changes.
Okay, so how do you do that? There are a lot of articles out there about how NOT to start a novel. One of them is called something like “100 Ways Not to Start a Novel,” and I didn’t read it because I thought it would frustrate me.
Common ways people warn against beginning a novel, besides a prologue or too much backstory, include:
~ A description of the landscape or the weather.
Lots of good novels open this way, though. Personally as a reader, it doesn’t bother me at all, unless it goes on for too long.
~ “My name is…”
To be fair, this is basically the opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — “Call me Ishmael.” It’s also how Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro begins. Oh, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. And Gateway, the scifi classic by Frederik Pohl. Clearly all of these writers are hacks. 😉
~ A dream.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a fantastic and entertaining novel that won the Pulitzer, begins in this way: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca opens like this: “”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” I think it helps in these cases that you know it’s a dream. The authors aren’t jerking you around.
~ An alarm clock buzzing/waking up.
This isn’t in any books that I like, as far as I can recall.
Personally, I find possibilities more inspiring than restrictions. Here are 30 ideas of places to start… maybe one of them will work with your story! For some of them, I’ve given examples of novels that begin in that way.
As with the plot lists in my Master Lists for Writers book, you’re not cheating by using one, because these are all really broad! Each one of them could go a bunch of different ways.
1.The arrival of a letter, email, or package. (The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield.)
This could be momentous. However, it could simply tell the reader about the character’s everyday life, such as a distasteful private message on a dating site.
2. A main character in a frustrating situation.
This can also give the reader a feel for her everyday life, while making them empathize with her right away. Maybe her car has broken down, or her cat is puking.
3. A main character in an awkward or embarrassing situation.
Maybe her cat is puking on the lap of a visitor she was trying to impress.
4. The discovery of a dead body. (Thief of Shadows, Elizabeth Hoyt. Also about a million mysteries.)
This is a popular one, and understandably so, because an ending is a new beginning.
6. The beginning or the middle of a disaster. (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, kind of.)
It could be a bombing, a plane crash, or a tornado.
7. The aftermath of a disaster. (Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.)
8. A kiss.
9. A performance, or the conclusion of one. (Bel Canto, Ann Patchett. This also has a kiss in it!)
10. A main character in the hospital. (Kindred, Octavia Butler.)
11. A main character declaring that he is in big trouble. (The Martian, Andy Weir.)
The first line of The Martian is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” But your character’s situation could be somewhat less dire: “I had no chance of doing well on the SAT that morning.”
12. A main character who’s clearly in big trouble. (What Is the What, Dave Eggers.)
She might be getting mugged or running from Nazi soldiers. Readers will start caring about her immediately.
13. The arrival of a plane, ship, or train. (The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas.)
The character might be on board, or she might be watching it come in.
15. A fight. (The Warrior, Zoë Archer.)
The character may be part of the fight, or just witnessing it.
16. A character moving in to a new place.
It could be a neighborhood or a dorm room.
17. A broad statement about one’s life. (One For the Money, Janet Evanovich.)
One For the Money begins, “There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me — not forever, but periodically.” That’s a great hook.
18. A dramatic moment in the middle or end of the story. (The Secret History, Donna Tartt.)
You can begin here and then backtrack to explain how they got there. For instance, the prologue of The Secret History begins, “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
19. A trial in a courtroom. (Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson; also an example of #18.)
A milder version of this: your character faces a judge or judges in the form of a parent, a manager, or a peers.
20. A job interview.
I really like this idea because you could get a lot of information across about your character naturally. She might be giving appropriate answers while her internal monologue tells you the rest of the story. Also, an applicant at a job interview is in a vulnerable position, which I think would create empathy for your heroine right away.
21. A main character meets someone new. (Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë)
A stray cat? A future lover? Someone important, probably.
22. A street scene. (Perdido Street Station, China Miéville.)
Your character could be getting an errand done or going to visit somebody. For a novel that takes place in an historical, futuristic, or fantasy setting, this can be a good way to establish a sense of place as well as establish your character’s normal life and priorities.
23. A main character in a triumphant situation.
Set her up before you knock her down. 🙂 She could be giving a speech, winning a race, or accepting an award. It could also be a smaller personal triumph, such as successfully fixing a car or turning in her term paper on time.
24. A character or characters getting dressed, shaving, putting makeup on, or doing their hair. (The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki.)
25. A big, happy occasion such as a wedding or a graduation.
Of course, it might or might not be happy for your main character, who may be a participant or someone in the audience.
26. One character teaching another how to do something.
This is another way to establish your main character’s personality and his everyday life. If he’s a father, he could be teaching his son to hunt or to cook rice properly. If he’s an insurance salesperson, he could be giving the new guy some tips.
27. A visitor showing up at the door. (The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler.)
The main character might be the visitor or the person answering the door.
28. A main character coming across a significant object.
It could be a photograph of a lover she intended to forget, or strange relic that turns out to be magical.
29. A character committing a crime.
She might be the main character, or she might be the antagonist.
30. A character or characters completing a task. (Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens.)
As I talked about in my post about combining action with dialogue, I think most of us struggle with getting our characters to do things. This could be an unusual or startling job, or a more ordinary one with emotional significance.
Do you have any other ideas? Or does one of these particularly appeal to you? Let me know in the comments!
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