Beginning Your Novel, Part 2

Continued from Beginning Your Novel, Part 1

d. What's going on?

Show things as they happen. There should be that sense of immediacy in your writing that draws the reader into the scene.

Face someone with opposition, conflict. This is a surefire way to capture attention. You don't need to explain why or what happened before the action--that can come later. But start with two opponents--one with a goal, one opposing him.

For an opening scene, find something a little more self-explanatory, something that doesn't need a great deal of backstory, so you don't confuse the reader about who and what's going on. The important thing is to bring the character in with action, movement, opposition.

e. Who--Which character's point of view?

Usually this is the first person's name that appears, although not always. Establish point of view character as early as possible.

The first time point of view character is mentioned, first and last name is acceptable:

Angelina Jolie slung a wad of cow dung at the thief racing off with her Ferrari.

You expect the rest of the scene in Angelina's point of view.

The first time the character appears, make sure he/she acts characteristically. His personality will be demonstrated by his action. Devise incidents that will force your character to reveal early on his true nature in action.

Often, a character has a dominant trait or aspect--this is what will open the story for your reader and reveal the character. While we're all complex personalities, in fiction it's good to have one dominant trait for each character to help discriminate between them: Cora is a timid schoolteacher, Jesse is a rebel gunslinger, Bob is a nervous banker, Angel is a sloe-eyed prostitute, Jeremiah is the slimy preacher, Mary is his starchy wife.

Give a general impression first, so the reader has a hazy description, and build on it as the scene or novel progresses. Just like for setting, you can use a cliché with a twist, and/or a significant detail that embodies the character:

She was like a dry English professor who'd gotten a ditzy blonde's brain transplant.

Everything she wore--color, cut, fabric--was designed to flatter that antique ruby and emerald ring.

Don't bring onstage too many characters at once. If you have problems remember names at parties, your reader will too.

f. What to leave out

Backstory, history, flashback, even discussion of past action. Hold these for later. When opening a book, your reader wants to know, "What's happening now?" not "What happened earlier?"

Remember, start with something self-explanatory so you can thrust the reader into the story world without needing a lot of explanation for them to be interested in what's happening. You can explain things after the action, after that first chapter, when the reader is firmly hooked in the story and more likely to sit still for an explanation.

g. Decision--The doorway of no return

As soon as you can in the story, commit the character to their goal for the book. There shouldn't be any easy way out or turning back. Once the character decides on a course of action, he can't stall, run, or quit--there should be something logical, believable and powerful preventing him. The character should irrevocably decide to fight whatever danger threatens him.

This creates reader curiosity and suspense. Will the character make his goal or won't he? The doubt or uncertainty of the character reaching his goal is often what propels a reader forward.

If the character cares about the outcome, the reader will care, also. If the character is apathetic, what's to keep the reader interested?


1. What's going on? Do you have enough conflict and obstacles to the focal character? Does the focal character have a particular goal for the scene that's being attacked or resisted?

2. Who's your focal character? Are they introduced first and described in a unique way?

3. Is there backstory you need to cut out?

4. Is the focal character's decision made early? Is it a doorway of no return so that the character can't go back?

Next: How to write backstory without putting your reader to sleep.

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

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