18

Looking at the function of the beginning of a novel, it is clear that it should hook the reader and draw him or her into the story. Different techniques for achieving the hook have been described, such as an ironic turn, naming extreme stakes, divulging the end, or voicing a general truth.

But if we consider the content of the beginning, what should the beginning of a novel contain? The setting? And if so, how much of it? An introduction to the protagonist? Which aspects of them? The problem, or a hint of it, that they are going to solve?

I'm not asking what I can do. I understand that in writing, I can do whatever I want, if I do it well. What interestest me here is whether there are common conventions (in genre fiction), a way things are typically done, maybe even a well-worn cliché to be avoided, as well as the common order of things (first the setting, then the protagonist, then the inciting incident).

If you can, please explain why that's how it is or should be done.


Note.

This question is not about first sentences! A novel takes a bit longer than that to commence. You're not in the story after the opening line. You may be hooked to learn more, but you're not yet there.

That's why I asked: "What should the first sentence / first parapraph / first page contain?" I think of the beginning as a journey into the book, from the first sentence to the first paragraph to the first page and so on, until the reader has arrived in the fictional world on somewhere around page four.

I had expected your answers to address the whole of the beginning, but in some answers my question has been misunderstood and they address the opening line alone. I have therefore edited my question and replaced the phrase above with "beginning".

I'm sorry for the misunderstanding my wording has caused.

I have asked a question about the opening line here.

  • There's a really good video about this on YouTube, called How to Write a Good First Line. I'm not sure it answers your questions exactly, but I still strongly recommend you watch it. – Demetre Saghliani May 2 '18 at 10:35
  • 2
    I know you think you are terribly clever, but please do not post a comment like "Lift the front cover and turn it over." or a link to wikihow.com/Open-a-Book. There have been three such comments now, all of which have been flagged and deleted. – user29032 May 3 '18 at 21:49
27

The way you open a novel largely depends on what kind of novel you're writing. If you're writing a humorous novel, there should be something humorous right on the first page. Look, for example, at Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens:

It was a nice day.
All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

It tells you right from the start that there's going to be humour in this book, and that the theme is going to be somewhat biblical.

Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which is meant to be more scary, opens with

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Gaiman's Stardust, which is sort of (but not really) a fairy tale, starts

There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart's Desire.
And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely novel (for every tale about every young man there ever was or will be could start in a similar manner) there was much about this young man and what happened to him that was unusual, although even he never knew the whole of it.

This opening gives us both the fairy tale aspect in the first line, and the more advanced aspect in the next.

Whatever your book is, it must tell the reader right from the start "this is what I am". It can start slow: Stardust starts with the MC's father, before he's married. It can start thrilling, like Graveyard Book. It can start with a prologue, like Good Omens. But however it starts, it must introduce itself, and be honest about it. Having read the first page or two, the reader should have an idea not of what is going to happen (that's boring), but of what kind of experience they should expect.

  • 1
    Adding to the "experience", the first page should represent your writing style. The example of Good Omens shows Pratchett in full flight. Gaiman's style is more or less restrained depending on the target audience, but again, it shows how the book will "feel". Snow Crash's opening description of the Deliverator is full-on Stephenson. The first page of The Lies of Locke Lamora is full of small comedic touches but covers the planned sale or murder of a child. Or for an extreme case, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell puts us firmly in the literary style of the early-to-mid 19th century. – Graham May 3 '18 at 13:34
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    @Graham A human must not stick with one style for the entirety of anything. – rus9384 Nov 30 '18 at 10:54
  • @rus9384 Well, it's an opinion. Not really a helpful one, but never mind. – Graham Nov 30 '18 at 12:56
7

The first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence. It's all about promises. As the other two answers already highlight some aspects, I feel this niche must be addressed.

If you start deep and meaningful, you promise your reader that there will be introspection.

If you start with action, you promise your reader there will be heartpounding action.

If you start banal, you had better have a reputation so solid that the reader immediately assumes it's to make them lower their guard (as Stephen King often does).

So. Consider what tale you are telling. Not the specifics, but the overarching themes and type of telling; there's your first sentence/paragraph.

Consider your main character(s), their voice, their sensibilities; there's your first page.

Consider your reader and what makes them want more; there's your hook that needs to be woven into your every sentence.

7

EDIT: This answer still applies after modification of the question; the answer is to focus on the important person (or some important persons if there will be several POV in the novel) first, in minor conflict; not the main conflict, as an introduction into the world of the novel.

The aspects of this person to focus on are (IMO) probably NOT their superpower (too soon to bare all on that), but something that shows their normality and is related to their superpower. For example, if my protagonist is a super warrior, I may show her with some of her crew on a battlefield after it is over; so I can show she cares about her crew (e.g. somebody is injured or dead), because I want to show she is a killer but not heartless or callous; just a soldier doing her job.

If my girl is a seer, perhaps she is being briefed on the aftermath of a mission instigated due to one of her visions.

In one of the Mission Impossible movies; the action opens with Tom Cruise fearlessly free-climbing some mountain. This does echo later (climbing a skyscraper with suction cups), but otherwise the mountain climb has nothing to do with the story at all; it just engages the audience and shows a character trait, and shows something of his world.

The opening pages need conflict; but it can be throw-away conflict (not central to the story) if it shows characters traits that are central to the story, and it can also show some of the setting, time period, etc. But always subordinate to the character(s).

--- Orignal below.

+1 Galastel; good insight.

My own stories are always about one person, an unusual MC with a dilemma. Thus my first sentences always refer to this person (indeed my title contains at least their first name), doing something and feeling something, but generally this is to illustrate their normal world and character and something about the setting. It is not the inciting incident that causes their central dilemma, it is more of an orientation for the reader.

If I were writing more generally about a setting, I would still recommend focusing on people doing something. I would probably open with a pair or group effort. The reason is, if I open with one MC and hold that for pages, the story seems to be about them instead of several people, and if I want to write about "Space Station Alpha" or "Earth 2" in the more general sense, I would need several people in various places in society.

I can do that by taking different POV every chapter, and still might, but I'd rather establish from the first sentence that multiple characters will be involved in the tale, so don't get attached to the first POV just because somebody has to be first. I would invent a scene (always with conflict, even if it is a meeting) that involves two or three of the future POV interacting.

I think it is a mistake to open a book and talk about the setting. That is (IMO of course) inevitably a list of facts and descriptions untethered to anyone and inherently rather boring. I would much rather hear that described from a POV of a person, which demands opening with a person.

I consider it important that the first page contain conflict, and that requires at least one person reacting to something. One person can be reacting to a fire, a storm / hurricane / tornado / flood, being lost, escaping something, an "event" (she accidentally cut her finger, or narrowly avoided a car accident because she is distracted), news she saw on TV or heard on the radio, etc. All of those are (loosely speaking) "conflict" in the sense they require decisions and actions, and this propels the reader forward to find out what happened, even though this little bit of drama is not ultimately a part of the story. (I usually "close it out" by making a minor reference to it later by that character, e.g. "I almost had an accident this morning.")

Even though the incident may last only a few pages, that is two pages where you build some character and setting and sneakily introduce a slightly larger dilemma.

Previously I have likened this to building a rope bridge across a canyon: First you throw (or carry) a thread to cross the canyon. Then use it to pull a cord across, then use the cord to pull a rope, then that rope to pull a bundle of a dozen ropes that will support the planks of your bridge.

The beginning of a novel can be similar; a tiny [thread] conflict to introduce a character, then she is done with that but pulled into a slightly larger conflict [cord] (say an ongoing relationship conflict with lover/boss/parent/sibling), that can pull her into the ACT I (30% of the way through the novel) crisis that is the point of the novel.

All of this can apply to a group as well; e.g. The Mission Impossible team or The Expendables or the Saving Private Ryan squad.

4

How to start a story depends on the type of story you're writing. I've found Orsen Scott Card's MICE quotient a useful tool for deconstructing stories. It can also tell you how to start a story.

How to start a Milieu(or place) Story

If the primary story thread is about a place, then you're writing a "Milieu" story. The start of your story should show your MC in his "normal" world. The "beginning" ends when they enter the "new" world. A good example is: Wizard of Oz. The story starts when she arrives in Oz(and ends when she leaves).

How to start an "Idea"(or question) story. If the primary story thread is an "Idea" story, then you need to start it by asking the big question of the novel. A murder-mystery novel is a good example. The point of the novel is to figure out "who did the murder". Therefore, the beginning of the story sets up someone being murdered in a mysterious way.

How to start a "Character" story

If the primary story thread is a "Character" story, then you need to start it by demonstrating clearly what is "wrong" with the character that must be fixed. For example, let's say that the point of your novel is for your MC has to realize that family is more important than money. Therefore the beginning should demonstrate your character choosing money\status\job over helping or spending time with family.

How to start an "Event" Story

If your primary story is an "Event" story, then you need to start it by briefly showing the MC in his normal life, then transition quickly to something happening that disrupts their normal life. Romantic comedy movies are a good example to draw from. The common trope of them is: character is happy, but then walks in on partner cheating on him throwing their life into turmoil. The movie is over when their life is restored by either finding a new partner or being "OK" with being single.

Some Final Thoughts

Of course, your novel will have more than one of these plot threads. However, it should be clear to you which is the dominant thread. Once you know that, you will know how to start your novel.

Also, this isn't to say it's the only thing your beginning should do. You'll, of course, want to do all the other things that good stories do like "hook the reader" by having conflict, establishing character's desires, and having fun and interesting first lines like everyone else has said.

Hope that helps!

3

This lecture series from Sanderson has a lot of good insight in it.

Specific to your question, in this episode on world building he talks about how to open a story while engaging with both character and setting right away. (He also discusses the epic fantasy prologue which might not be relevant to your genre).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v98Zy_hP5TI

In the example of the girl searching for the egg, he opens with the girl engaged in direct action (scaling a wall) that speaks to both setting (to steal an egg from a giant monster that lives on top of a cliff) and character motivation (to feed her family).

I found the way he broke down what was compelling about the hook to be helpful.

While the advice is epic fantasy specific, the series may have helpful techniques for writers in other genres or non-genre writers.

3

Late to the party because I don't like the common wisdom.

Common wisdom: Ground the reader, while also hooking with excitement. Often this means POV (Point of View) character named in first line, anchored for a paragraph or two, then feed in second character, third, etc.

Better answer: Introduce us to the 'normal world' of the protagonist. I'd rather read about the setting for a while then get the MC (Main Character).

In general, my best advice, is to think in terms of wooing the reader. Chocolates and flowers. Woo the reader. Lots of overtures, well crafted, sophisticated, smooth. Love the reader. Make the reader feel loved. (I think the reason the Beatles were so popular is that many of their songs, like "I wanna hold your hand," or "Ticket to Ride," etc, were about loving the listener. LOVE your reader.)

I've seen many openings. Some follow the consensus and some don't. I'm going consensus (common wisdom) for the current project but hope to move away from that for book two.

2

Content follows directly from the function. The function is to hook the reader to the story. So the content should be to introduce what is appealing about your story. To give a good first impression of the story.

So if your story appeals by its setting, introduce it. If it is a matter of being funny open with something funny. If it is a matter of style, highlight the style. And so on.

Generally you want the opening to highlight as many appealing aspects as you can. But as mentioned by others the opening is also a promise to the reader, so it should not contain things you cannot deliver. If your story is dark, do not make the opening light unless the story actually consistently delivers light moments in the gloom.

The question then comes : What do these things naturally link to? What naturally highlights them?

In the appeal comes from fast paced action, you need an action sequence as an opener. If it is the funny interactions and dialogue of the characters, you need to open with them interacting. If the story is about how unlucky the main characters is and how he deals with it, opener is about him being unlucky and failing in something. Which then leads to the main story.

So yeah, the content really can be anything you want. But not all content is equally good. Evaluate based on how it highlights the appeal points of the story and also on how it leads to the main story.

Sorry for not having a good clear answer but hopefully this helps at all.

0

When you want to write the beginning of a novel, there are two helpful analogies to guide you through the process. The first analogy is that of

waking up.

When you begin to wake up, you are within yourself and then slowly become aware, first of your physical sensations, then your surroundings, you begin to think of what you are going to do first (sit up, get dressed), and then plan the day ahead.

Waking up in the morning is like the familiar, everyday version of waking up in a different world. You come from your dreamworld and at first you will have to orient yourself and reaffirm who and where you are. This is an automatic process and quickly, but in essence it is the same as if you woke up in an unknown place and had to find out where you are and what is going on. You won't immediately graps the whole situation, but will look around, see what is there, interact with it, go a bit further, and bit by bit find out what world you are on.

Whenever a reader starts a new book, they are in fact entering a new world. The book may take place in present day America, but even then the reader (and even if they are native to that country) will have to orient themselves and learn who they are (the protagonist), where they are, and what is going on.

And, like with waking up, you'll not want to overwhelm the reader with too many things at once. You'll not douse them with a cold infodump, but allow them to gradually "wake up" to your world.

So the beginning of a novel is, first, a slow moving outwards from the protagonist or some other narrow focus to a wider view of the fictional world.

Now, that is the function – guide the reader into the story world – and structure – a gradual widening of focus – of the beginning, but the question was about the content of the beginning. To understand the content of the opening, a useful analogy is that of

an essay.

I'm a psychologist and have spent the last decade or so writing academic journal articles. Empirical journal articles in psychology begin with an introduction in which you lay out the theory and present your hypotheses, continues with the methods you have used to test your hypotheses, the results of your study, and a discussion of these results and your methods in the context of the theory outlined in the introduction. Conventions for journal article structure differ between academic disciplines, but I have found the following principle to be almost ubiquitous.

In his guide on Writing the empirical journal article, psychologist Daryl J. Bem suggests a kind of funnel-structure for the introduction: from some broad, general observation about the world we live in ("Individual novels differ radically from one another in how they begin."), you become more specific ("Indeed the popular view is that you may begin your novel however you like."), and more ("But there is some evidence that the beginnings of novels all follow the same structuring principle."), until you finally propose the hypotheses you want to test in your study ("All novels begin with a statement of the theme of the novel.").

Now, a novel certainly isn't an academic journal article, but a novel is an experiment and its "introduction" has a very similar structure to that of an academic paper.

If you look at the waking-up analogy above, the novel begins with a narrow focus and broadens its view slowly, while the academic journal article begins broadly and then narrows its focus. And if we turn that narrowing funnel of the academic paper around and overlay it on the widening funnel of the novel, the hypothesis of the journal article comes to lie on the first sentence of the novel. And there is our analogy.

A novel begins with a hypothesis, and the rest of the novel is a thought experiment to test this hypothesis. That is why many opening lines of novels state a general principle or eternal truth – because they then set out to test the veracity of this principle or truth. And if a novel begins with "The day I turned sixteen I had no idea that in four months nearly everyone I cared about would be dead.", then the novels tests the implications of this.

Taking these two analogies together, we now understand that

a novel begins with a hypothesis and then slowly widens its focus to show the reader the world that this hypothesis is tested in.

You can, if you prefer, use other terms for the elements of the beginning. Instead of "hypothesis" you can say "theme" (which can be a moral principle or a character with specific traits in certain circumstances or something else), and instead of "widening of focus" you can think of moving from

  1. who the character is, in an intense moment, to
  2. what the character wants, to
  3. the character's place in the world,

as Brandon Sanderson does in the lecture that Amelia has mentioned in her answer.

Another alternative concept is the moral premise, as Stanley D. Williams uses the term in his book The Moral Premise. He suggests that every successful book or movie is based on "a statement of truth about the protagonist's physical and psychological predicament", or, in my words, a hypothesis about that predicament.

  • Who the character is, what they want and their place in the world is neither a "theme" or a "hypothesis"; and pretending that is synonymous with a hypothesis (by saying you can use other terms) is a false equivalence. Not all novels (or stories, like movies) have a hypothesis to be proven or disproven. A story can be entertaining without being any kind of concealed exercise in philosophical argument; and Sanderson's model of a story in that very lecture is only "the reader wants to have a certain kind of experience." (fantasy, detective, thriller, horror, etc). Entertainment. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 3 '18 at 16:37

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