Wednesday, July 25, 2012

39. Where does a novel begin?

There are two main considerations in beginning a novel. First--WHERE do you begin? And second, HOW do you begin? This week we’ll look at the first consideration.

A rule of thumb is to begin your story in a place where something compelling happens. A friend of mine who writes young adult adventure novels advises: “Begin the day after everything changed.”

One way to look at it is to decide what the most important conflict in the story is and begin with an illustration of that conflict. That is what I did when I began Pandora’s Genes. As I mentioned in a previous post, it started with a dream, in which I saw a good man reluctantly doing something that he knew was wrong.

You could argue that the story actually begins when he makes the decision to go against his conscience, but the real story is in the consequences of that action as they unfold, and therefore that is where I started the novel.

Columbo.jpPeter Falk as Columbo

In many murder mysteries, the story begins when a body is found, or at the moment of a murder. This decision can vary depending on the sort of mystery it is. If it’s a procedural, you may well begin with the murder, or the events leading up to the murder. Think of the old TV show Columbo, in which all the suspense lay in seeing how Columbo would figure out the events that we, the viewers, had already witnessed.

In other mysteries, the story may begin when the detective first learns of the murder, which may even have been committed long in the past. In this case, readers will see clues as the detective does and put the pieces together with him.

In my science fiction novella, The Ptorrigan Lode, I began with the main character already in trouble, in danger of dying from drug withdrawal on a space station. It is only in the course of the story that we learn how he became addicted in the first place, and why he is on a space station.

A story that begins like this is said to start in media res—in the middle of the action, and it’s long been a common technique with science fiction. Experienced science fiction readers know to be patient and the questions they have about technology or terminology will eventually be answered, either directly or implicitly. This technique is often used in mainstream fiction as well.

Other genres have other conventions for where to begin a story. Romances often begin either at the time or just before the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers. Here again, it’s important to get the story going before worrying about the events that led up to it.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must begin with some sort of action—physical or emotional. It’s tempting to want to explain how your main character arrived at the action or decision point that actually starts the story, but that’s a tactic that is likely to lose your readers. The best way to explain your character is to show us how she reacts to events throughout the story.

Next week: HOW to begin a novel.


  1. Beginning in media res is compelling because the reader knows some explanation is coming and moves forward expectantly. Some people (my wife) hate it though. If we're watching a movie she constantly wants to know why something happened or who that person is and I have to respond "Well, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"

    1. Don't give her any science fiction. She would not have the patience. It was the fashion in the nineteenth century to start novels with a lot of background. It takes patience for that sort of novel too, to get through all the stuff to the story.

  2. And then there's the kind that jumps back and forth in time like the one I am reading now by Edward Abbey. So much detail and history, but I am compelled to find out where he is going with it all.

    1. I didn't want to get too complex, but that is another choice. The point of my little essay here is which point in time do you START with?

  3. I find that things work best when I start at a transition point in the characters life. It might not be where the story should begin, but at least it gets words on the page. I can always go back and shift things around later.

    1. That's great advice, Jess--start at a transition point (which might be another way of saying at an illustration of the novel's main conflict). And also, of course, that you can go back and shift things around later. I think a lot of beginning novelists feel that they shouldn't change what they have already written.