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I'm authoring a horror/corruption/murder novel. The book starts off with the Main Character telling the reader about who he is and his physical appearance (now in his 60s), how he got to be financially successful (starting work at age 15), introduces his wife very briefly (2 sentences), and an unexpected catastrophic event which would change his life forever. (Total beginning chapter is 605 words. He does not tell the reader what the book is about other than the unexpected event.)

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  • Question: How is this different to a 'normal' opening chapter in a 1st-person novel?
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 5, 2023 at 14:01
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    The reason I am asking is, I create from an uneducated writing background. I was 'discovered' by a website owner in 2016 from my nightly rants on my social media page about society and its behavior. She liked my ability to tell a story. Well, now...I am trying to write a novel, yet do not have the financial wherewithal to take English courses or unlimited time. At 65 years old, I live on borrowed time. I've accumulated ideas and done brief outlines of over one hundred titles over the last 30+ years. My goal is to finish them. My questions might sound basic, but your answers...help a lot. Aug 6, 2023 at 2:41
  • We all deserve a little hand-holding and encouragement... Your question doesn't actually ask a 'problem' that needs to be 'solved' (I did not vote-to-close but their reason is 'needs clarity'). I think I speak for everyone when I say that opening sounds fine, not at all weird or controversial, so we're not seeing any reason NOT to open that way.... It's why I asked how it is different to a 'normal' opening chapter, to ask what you feel the problem might be.... (If you don't see a problem, and we don't see a problem, there is maybe no problem?) ;D
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 6, 2023 at 11:47
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    Thank you Wetcircuit for the input. I don't see a problem with it, but after reading so many opinions, I lacked confidence which led to the problem (in my mind) of whether I was doing the right thing. Therefore, I sought input from experienced authors. Upon reviewing your profile, and realizing you have knowledge, I'm going full steam ahead with my gut feeling. Aug 6, 2023 at 17:35

4 Answers 4

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The danger here is that you have to catch the reader. Since you are not starting with engaging action, you need an engaging voice. One that convinces the reader that if he reads what this character is telling, it will be worth it.

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I think you can absolutely start a novel this way, as other novels have also done. But you do need to make it engaging and you don't want it to be an info-dump where the purpose of the introduction is simply to 'fill the reader in.' This introduction should be to pull the reader in, to vaguely clue the reader in to what's going to happen without actually revealing much.

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Consider this second sentence of a novel:

To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night.

If it’s good enough for Charles Dickens, I'd say you’re safe.

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From the first line of “The Lovely Bones”

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

Is a great example of a first person narrative. The opening sentence tells you the big details and sets the stakes. It seizes the imagination with lots of implied questions — who killed her, why did they kill her, and where they caught?

She goes on to describe herself, but obliquely. Her self-description feels very natural. When your character describes themselves, strive to not make a materially accurate or factual, but use that moment to reveal much more about the character and temperament of the character than you do about their height or weight or body build. Think about how you think about how you look. In your mind's eye. Use that kind of language and it will feel natural and engage the reader because it creates a sense of openness and insight to who the narrator is.

Another point. While there is no definition of how long they need to be, 600 words seem short. That’s two pages, in standard manuscript format. That seems more like a scene. If the rest of your chapters are 2000-8000 words and just this first chapter is a runt, then I can’t imagine it matters. But, if all your chapters are that short then I’d be worried you are skimping on establishing the setting and tension and stakes for the character.

Last point, you talk about being "discovered." If that means someone is encouraging you to try writing, then that is great. If they want you to pay to be published or to market your novels then that is a big red flag. It might be a kind of vanity press.

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