Five Ways To Strengthen Your Novel's Beginning - a guest post by Jane Maree

September 9, 2017

   Morning, readers! It's finally time for the first guest post of my blogoversary bash! The lovely Jane Maree (who recently started her author website, so you should check her out) is here to tell y'all about strengthening your novel's beginning. So I'll step out of the way so you can hear her wisdom, yes? ;)

   *exit Savannah*  

Picture this: you come up with a stunning idea for a novel. You plot it all out (or don’t, depending on your personal method :P) and you sit down, fingers ready to start this wonderful new story.
But then there comes the flash of horror. You have to actually begin it. But how?? What should you start with? Where and when should you begin? How will you make it just right?
I don’t know about you, but I know that beginnings are one of the hardest parts of writing for me. Just that first scene. Once I’m past it I can go fine, but starting that first scene is like face-planting in pizza sauce and trying to swim. (I don’t recommend trying this.)
The beginning of your story is crucial to hooking in your readers and trapping them inside your story. There’s so many important details to include and juggle and try to include without making it too much.
Today I’ve got a list of five ways that you can strengthen your beginning. This is by no means covering everything, but…it’s a beginning.

1: Start with character

Character is about 75% of nailing your opening scene. Beginnings are all about character. The characters are what will keep your audience hanging on the edges of their seats. They won’t be invested in your story if you don’t give them someone to cheer for. So you need to do this right at the very, very beginning.
In the first scene of your novel, you need to introduce your readers to your protagonist and give them a reason why they should care about what happens to him. Some of the most stunning books I have ever read, are amazing because of the characters. Without strong characters to care about, why would your readers bother to keep reading?
The very first scene in your book should be the Characteristic Moment (more about that later). First impressions are hugely important. Your character can’t get interesting ‘later’ because if your readers are uninterested in the first chapter it’s ten times harder to recapture that interest ‘later’—if they even bother to keep reading.
“My knuckles dimple as I gather my full skirts and offer Father a pretty curtsy. I am breathless from running down the stairs to greet him, although, in truth, my breathlessness is mostly from my plumpness, which is the effect of too many sweets these past three years. My old maid Hazel…calls it baby fat, but that is her love for me speaking. I know better.” –A Wish Made of Glass, Ashlee Willis
[several words excluded from quote to avoid slight spoilers]
In this paragraph, Ashlee introduces the readers to her main character and already gives that layer of relatability to her. Because really, who hasn’t had the problem of too many sweets? :P

2: Find the balance between action and boredom

Some of the most prominent writing advice that I have heard about beginnings is something along the lines of: “start with action” “make it begin with a bang.” Though it’s true that having a gripping hook is important, it’s also very important not to just slap your readers in the face with a bunch of action. There is a certain amount of context that is needed in every story. If you simply begin your novel in the middle of a fistfight in a back alley, your audience will be confused. Who should they root for? Why are these people fighting? What in the world is going on with this story?
Going back to point number one, using character is a great way to balance out the action and boredom. Starting with a fistfight in an alley is fine in itself, but without a character to draw readers into your story it’s going to fall flat. Another way as well as characters, is to include context. Including context via the character mixes the two together and works very well for creating a strong beginning.
“What can I say? I'm a moron.
I knew better than to play ball in King Coat's territory. Maybe I was looking for a fight, wanting to blow off steam after my “talk” with Principal McKaffey.” –The New Recruit, Jill Williamson
In this example, Jill Williamson uses a great beginning to her story. Spencer (the main character) is in the middle of a fight with some other boys and it works wonderfully for this story. She uses characters to draw the reader in, and weaves in context and setting and backstory so artfully. Over the next few pages she balances the action and the necessary context in a way that flows, makes sense, and draw the reader into the story.
I’d highly recommend finding a preview and reading her first chapter at least (goodreads and amazon both have samples), as it has many more examples of how to handle this well.

3: Use the goal/conflict/disaster pattern

This is the proper scene structure for every single scene. Your character has a goal, something is standing in the way of that goal, and a disaster (big or small) happens because of that. Your beginning needs to have a structured flow just like all your other scenes, and following this will majorly help to keep it from being a jumbled mess.
Added to the basic sense of structure this will give your scene, this also helps with my second point. Because this requires the presence of conflict so it assures that there is no reason for boredom.
“The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean.” –Cinder, Marissa Meyer
This is the beginning paragraph of Cinder. The rest of the first chapter is a good example of the goal/conflict/disaster structure. For those who haven’t read the book, I’ve keyed down the spoilers as much as possible and it shouldn’t be a problem, but feel free to skip the next paragraph.
Cinder’s goal is to get her new foot attached and move on with her mechanic business like any normal day. Conflict comes into play when A Certain Important Guy turns up with his android. Cinder wants to hide the fact that she’s a cyborg but she currently has no foot attached to her ankle, and the tension runs high through the scene as she tries to hide the fact. This is the disaster section. In this particular example, it all turns out okay, but many other scenes in both Cinder and other books have a much more disastrous ending to the scene.
Because of this structure, the first chapter of Cinder works very well in introducing enough information and having enough happening at the same time to draw in the readers.

4: Introduce Your Story

This might seem a little obvious, but it’s similar to point two. You need some context for your story, and not just so that your readers understand. You need the context as a set-up for the plot and the story as a whole.
“Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being reading for anything. But in Hitch's thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.” –Storming, K. M. Weiland
From just that one paragraph, Weiland introduces so much about the story, the character, and the setting, and also plants question in the readers’ minds that keeps them reading. Why is there bodies falling out of the sky?? Good question. That’s what the story is all about.
Aside from what we’ve already covered, the beginning should introduce your…

‘Normal’ World and Setting:

This is good context to explain why everything is happening how it is. Without this knowledge, a half-blood boy vaporising his maths teacher with a pen/sword is going to make no sense at all. This also sets up for a powerful contrast later on in the story.

Overall tone:

This is where you show your writing style and the feel of your story. You want readers to be able to open your book, scan over the first page, and be able to see whether or not they like your style.

Protagonist’s motivation and conflict:

Basically, you’re introducing the main conflict and plot line that will continue on through the whole story. Similar to what I said in point two, your beginning can’t just be introducing a character, it does have to introduce your dilemma/conflict. You don’t need to bring in the main villain of the story, but you do need to start off the plot right away because if you don’t have a plot in your first chapter, what’s to make the readers know that you will later? Even if all you include is just the smallest thing that creates a nagging question in the reader’s minds and they simply can’t put down the book without reading it all to discover the answer.

5: Include theme

“But it’s only the first chapter! Do I have to have theme in the first chapter?”
Yes. You absolutely do. Theme is a massively important part of every novel. You can have a brilliant cast of characters, a stunning plot full of twists and surprises, a well-developed story world, but if you haven’t got a strong theme, it’s not going to truly affect your readers on a deep level.
The Characteristic Moment that I mentioned in my first point is the set-up for your character arc. It should show your readers where your character is at and how he views the world. If your theme is hope, the characteristic moment lets the readers know that your protagonist doesn’t think hope is even worth the time. If your theme is courage, maybe it shows your protagonist running away from conflict instead of standing up for what’s right. This sets out a foundation for the rest of the story—plot-wise and theme-wise as the Quest and the Arc continue.
In much of the modern literature I’ve read—be it published books or alpha/beta novels I was critiquing—there is a tendency to leave the theme and character arcs until further along in the story. The second or third chapter is more likely to include a little bit of theme, but the first is usually sadly lacking.
With this, it’s the same as having a good plot, or good characters. It needs to be in there right from the beginning to show your readers that this story is one of those stories that really do matter.

      how are you doing with your novel's beginning? 
which is easier for you to write - the beginning or the end?
   go ahead and chat with Jane in the comments!


  1. Right now I'm editing the 6th draft of my first book, and OH MY GOODNESS BEGINNINGS ARE THE BANE OF MY EXISTENCE. But it's fine. I'm fine. Everything is fine.
    This is a really handy, easy to understand guide that I need to follow for my first chapter. :)

    1. Wow congrats on getting that many drafts! I'm in awe.
      I'm glad this helped. :P

  2. Oof, beginnings are HARD! Just when you sit down thinking you have the storyline figured out, you realize you never thought about the first paragraph, and you have writer's block before you even start. >:( I'll definitely remember this blog post while I'm writing. Thank you for your thoughts!

    1. I know right?? This happens to me all. the. time. >.< I've always found beginnings one of the hardest parts of writing.
      You're welcome! :D

  3. Eek. Now I'm scared. I need to work on my novel's beginning, big time, but I have my hopes set high. Thank God.
    I agree with you completely. Beginning your novel is the hardest, most stressful part of writing the novel. I always want to come up with the perfect one, but I know I can't. I know it takes time and many rewrites. Many, many rewrites. Ending your novel is the second hardest because there, everything comes to and end. You need to tie the bag shut and make sure there aren't any holes. Plot holes are very annoying to readers.
    I will definitely remember this while I'm writing and rewriting the beginning of my novel. ;)
    Do you edit for anyone, or is it a certain genre you edit for?
    Thank you, and God Bless!

    1. Hehe DON'T BE SCARED. YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS. *thumbs up*
      Yes, endings are also tricky. There's so many details to remember. (And all too often my first, second, and maybe even third drafts all have horrible endings still because it's just so harddd. XD)

      I edit for any fiction genre (though I most frequently do speculative fiction, simply because it's most common). Thanks for asking! (If you have more questions, feel free to shoot me a message via the contact form on my website) :D

    2. I love my story, and I love what message it will give, so I'm going to try my hardest and let God do the rest. Thanks for the encouragement! :)
      The details are the worst. You have to remember them ALL, and make sure you tie all the loose strings. One string that isn't tied can mess up the whole story for your reader. It's scary. lol

      Okay that's good to know. Thanks so much! :D Oh, one more thing. Can you edit short stories as well?

    3. That's the best. Giving it over to God is honestly the greatest thing you can do. :D

      You're welcome! And yes, I do edit short stories. :D

    4. I mean, if it glorifies God, then why not just give it to him to give you the strength? Ask him to give you the words to write. :)

      I'll probably be contacting you sometime soon. ;) Thanks for answering my questions!

  4. WOW YES I 100% APPROVE OF THIS. Beginnings are always soo hard ack. Using examples from actual books though was fantastic, now I really have a good grip on some of these things. :D

    1. YAY THANKS. :P They are, right?? Every new book I write I think "Hey maybe I'll have nailed how to write a beginning finally" but no. It is not this day yet. xD
      There are so many good examples from books (which is why it's so important to read lots). I loved finding them all to use. :)

  5. YYEEEYYY THIS WAS SO USEFUL <3 So excited! Thanks for this beautiful post :3

    1. Thanks!! <3 I'm so glad you found it useful, and hopefully you'll be able to apply it, eh? :D

  6. I soooo needed this post Jane/Savannah! I'm starting to rewrite Eirwen's story, and the beginning of AITS really stank. Thank you for this!!


    1. Ayy, I'm so glad to have helped out. Best of luck for the new draft! :D

  7. This is sooo good! I struggle SO MUCH with how to begin my novels, and these tips are reeeally going to help a lot. Thank you for sharing, Savannah, and thank you, Jane, for writing it!! <3

    1. You're welcome! It's good to know it helped. :)
      I'm pretty sure all writers ever struggle with beginnings. :P They're so moody sometimes. xD

  8. Thank you for the writing tips, Jane!!:) They were really helpful.


    1. You're very welcome, Quinley. :D I'm so happy that they were helpful. :P

  9. Thanks so much for being here, Jane! Your post was epicness (*cough* and I have a wretched time with beginnings, so this was great *cough*) - you're the best! <3

    1. Thank you so much for having me!! ^-^ I was so glad to hang out on your epic blog. *hugs* <3


    1. Totally agreeing with you on that, Grace. :P I've done a lot of work over beginnings and I know the theory but it's still so hard in practice. xD

  11. THIS


    Starting stories can be so, SO hard. That's always the most difficult part for me--the first few chapters. It's so hard to find that balance of it being engaging but not TOO action-packed where the reader is confused. Plus I'm learning the feel of my story and characters and just slkdjflsj;jfd. It's haaaard! But this post just laid it out in such a simple and genius method!

    Just yes to all of this! Starting out with the main character is so important, that's what's going to draw us into the story after all. And then finding that balance between action and boredom is one of the most important things! Like I said, it can be really hard to decide how to lure your reader in without confusing them with TOO much action. I love how you said to use character and weave it into the action. Brilliance!

    This whole post was brilliance all around. Thank you so much for sharing with us!


      Using character and action is one of the best ways I've discovered to make an epic beginning. :P I really hope it helps with yours!!

      Thank you so much for your super comment. :D


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