Beginning your novel, part 1

Beginning is three things: Desire, Danger, Decision.

a. Where to start

Start the story with Danger--trouble, change, a day that's different.

You want to briefly show the character's existing situation--his normal life, what constitutes happiness to the character. This is his Desire.

Then show a change in that situation, a new element, relationship, event--Danger. It should set off a chain reaction of events that influences or affects someone--and not necessarily the protagonist.

Faced with the change and himself (or someone close to him) who is affected by the change, the character makes a decision to do something about it. It should be something the character can't just walk away from, something that spurs him to dedicated, focused action. This is his Decision.

b. How to open

There are many ways to open, and each has problems. You have to choose which one you prefer to tackle:

If you open too far ahead of the initial change, or Danger, and you might bore the reader. Open in the middle change itself, and the reader might feel disoriented to be thrust in the middle of something he doesn't understand. Open after the change, and you're forced to explain what happened in a lot of backstory.

Hook them with a first sentence, a first paragraph, a first page. Realistically, a reader in a bookstore takes 20 seconds to decide to buy a book. You need to make that first page so compelling they have to read on.

Work on your opening line. It should show something unexpected, mysterious, curious, devious, dangerous, surprising, or intriguing.

c. Where is it?

Are you in Louisiana? The moon? In a bar called Louisiana on a moon base?

Description doesn't need to be pages or even a paragraph. A good trick to give the reader a general feel for the setting is to mention a cliché, with a twist:

The party had the attitude of a drunk, ditzy blonde.

Another trick is to mention something significant, detailed, which embodies the setting:

He stared at the scarred, sagging wooden doors before swinging them open and stalking into the bar.

The mention of the swinging wooden doors immediately conjures up images of a spaghetti western.

After that sentence to "sum up" your setting, you can pepper details in throughout the scene in your characters' action beats:

He slammed a silver dollar onto the wooden bar, but it dinged off a deep rut cut into the wood and skittered across the peanuts toward the burly man next to him. In the dim light, he couldn't make out more than a jagged scar on the pock-marked cheek and a gold-glinting sneer.

Next: Beginning your novel, part 2


1. From your manuscript, list: a) the main character's existing situation, b) the change to that situation, c) the affected character, and d) the consequences that spur the main character to action. What is your character's Desire, Danger, and Decision?

2. Look at your opening line. Is it something unexpected, mysterious, curious, devious, dangerous, surprising, or intriguing?

3. Where is the story set? Do you have a long paragraph of description or do you ease your reader into your story world?

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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