In the Beginning: Tips on Starting Your Novel

Welcome! Congratulations to Roni Denholtz who won a $20 Amazon gift card in our most recent contest. We’ll contact Roni through email in order to coordinate her prize. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and I hope you enjoy my contribution this month.

Joanna


When I first started writing, one of the concepts most challenging for me was finding the right place to start my story. My very first manuscript opened with the heroine stifling a yawn. Seriously. Needless to say, feedback on said story mentioned that the opening was, well, boring. Gee. Who wouldda thunk it?

If I’m being honest, I must admit that I’ve had to rewrite the opening of every single manuscript I’ve ever written, save the current one. (In fact, I have one manuscript where the opening has been redone FOUR times.) So I’ve done quite a bit of research into the current popular thinking on the best place to start a story. I say “current” because tastes and reader expectations change over time. Not only that, there seems to be a decided difference on what the established, popular authors can do and what is expected from newer authors. So don’t read this blog post and then go pick up a Johanna Lindsey or Nora Roberts book to compare your opening to theirs. There is a reason why the bestselling authors can do whatever the hell they want. This post is not aimed toward anyone who has ever had a hardcover book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

So where to begin? Even if you’re a pantser, you should have a rough idea of where your story is going before you start writing. These may be loose thoughts rattling around in your head like marbles, or a obsessive/compulsive outline of every thought, scene, and detail in your book. Assuming you’re ready to start writing, the first thing you want your story to do is grab the reader’s attention. We want them to keep reading, right? If a potential reader is flipping through your book and happens to read the first paragraph, you want to engage them until they can’t put the put down. Lots of factors contribute to a strong beginning, so let’s touch on a few here.

The First Few Pages

No one can tell you exactly how many pages you have to snag a reader, an editor, or an agent’s attention. Some folks say five, and some say fifteen. Some even say all you get is one stinking paragraph. But what you should take away as the answer is NOT MANY.

Author Nathan Bransford says, “When you’re starting a novel there are only two things you’re looking to find: Voice and Plot.” Sounds easy, right? (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

But it is fairly simple. Think of it this way: you want to give the reader an idea of what your story is about and how that story is going to be told right from the get-go.

While no one can give you the magic formula to do this successfully, there are surefire ways to NOT to do it. Here are some common no-nos on starting your novel, paraphrased from the brilliant Kristen Lamb:

  • Info-dump. The story begins with lengthy world building, lots of facts, or backstory. Snooze.
  • Starting right in the middle of the action. You’ve got to give your reader a reason to care about what happens to your character BEFORE it happens. This point may seem like a direct contradiction of the above about info-dumping, but it’s not. You have to find a happy medium there. We want enough character building that we care about the character, but not a bunch of useless information better given later in the story (if at all).
  • Flashbacks and prologues. These are generally unnecessary, as they don’t move your plot forward, and they can be confusing for the reader.

Author Crawford Killian believes, “A novel (or a short story for that matter) should begin at the moment when the story itself becomes inevitable.” I love that description. It means starting in a place where the hero can’t possibly turn away from this new path. Also, you’ve got to show the reader what’s at stake, so the character’s concerns matter to the reader. Which leads us to the…

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is defined as “A plot point in the first act which disturbs the life of the protagonist and sets them in pursuit of an objective.” In other words, it’s the ball that gets the whole story rolling. We all know we need an inciting incident, otherwise there’s no plot. According to Scribe Meets World, the inciting incident:

  • jolts your hero out of his everyday routine.
  • is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot.
  • is something that must happen in order for your hook to kick in.

Examples are someone dying, something is won or lost, a tornado is approaching, etc. It needs to be something out of the ordinary that happens to chart a new course for your hero. And this can’t be something the hero does, it’s something that happens to the hero.

Now that you know your inciting incident, the big question becomes WHERE in the story does it go?

Most experts agree it must occur in the first act, and should go as close to the beginning as possible to serve as the bait in order to hook the reader. The inciting incident creates tension, which compels the reader to keep reading in order to find out what happens.

The First Line

Oh boy. This is a tough one. First lines are tricky because they matter so darn much. Editors and agents are very busy, and if you want your work to be noticed, you have to pay attention to even the first words on the page. It has to be a grabber, and many blog posts I found lobbied for the first line to “surprise” the reader. No one can tell you how to come up with a witty or dramatic first line. That takes years a practice and lots of trial and error finding your own voice. I can, however, give….EXAMPLES!

Hooray! It’s time for samples. These are all great (in my opinion) first lines of popular romance novels. I’ve compiled a list of both historical, classics, romantic suspense, and contemporary. When you remember that the opening should give a good feel for the tone and voice, you can see why these first sentences are all outstanding.

Glory in Death, J.D. Robb

“The dead were her business.”

The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne

“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Catch of the Day, Kristan Higgins

“Falling in love with a Catholic priest was not my smartest move.”

Something About You, Julie James

“Thirty thousand hotel rooms in the city of Chicago, and Cameron Lynde managed to find one next door to a couple having a sex marathon.”

One for the Money, Janet Evanovich

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.”

Nothing But Trouble, Rachel Gibson

“Just because a man was lucky to be alive, didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.”

The Darkest Hour, Maya Banks

“He’d hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today.”

Bad Boys Do, Victoria Dahl

“This wasn’t a book club; it was a manhunt.”

Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.”

The Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas

“As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park.”

Did I leave off any of your favorite opening lines? We love hearing from readers, so please share!

And now I’m off to rewrite the beginning of my current manuscript. Happy writing!

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27 Comments

  1. Oh! How exciting–I won something! 🙂
    When I first started reading adult ficiton (about age 14) the trend was to have a lot of descriptions, then get into the action. But this was boring, and eventually it changed so that more books were starting with action. One of my favorite first lines, from Mary Stewart’s “My Brother Michael” (I don’t have the book handy), was something like, “The car, mademoiselle. A matter of life and death.” While most of her books strated with descriptions of flowers or geological formations, that one started with a bam! and hooked me right away.

    Reply
    • Oh, that’s a good one. Thanks for sharing! I’ll email you re: gift certificate. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
  2. Hi Joanna,

    I’m a big fan of these opening lines by Meredith Duran:

    “Trouble walked in around midnight. She was swaying on her feet from too much champagne, and had a man on each arm, though neither seemed to interest her much.” (Written on Your Skin)

    “England was a wicked bitch who wished him ill.” (Wicked Becomes You)

    Will you share the opening line of your current WIP?

    Reply
    • Oh, those are good ones! I’ve never read any of her books, but these opening lines have me intrigued.

      You expect me to follow all those great opening lines with the one from my current WIP?! Talk about setting myself up for failure. Well, here goes:

      Though he’d never been a violent man, a cartoon had him contemplating slow and excruciatingly painful murder.

      Now, what’s YOUR opening line, Ms. Quincy?

      Reply
      • Intriguing opener! Makes me smile AND wonder what’s in the cartoon…

        OK. Here are my opening lines:

        “Death was not what Lord Cosmo Dunsmore anticipated. He hadn’t expected the agent of darkness to snatch him from a Dorset cornfield at dawn. But this was fitting, once he thought about it, given the extent of last evening’s debauchery.”

      • Great opening! And Cosmo? Absolutely *love* it.

      • jennablueblogs

         /  May 1, 2012

        Hmmmn. I believe this is different than the version I’ve got of yours to read!!! : )
        I love it!

      • Yes — as I said, I’ve yet to write a beginning I didn’t change. This one is new.

  3. Excellent opening, Diana.

    Love Meredith Duran, too! Her hooks just set the tone for amazing writing.

    My absolute, all-time favorite is from Susan E. Phillips “Natural Born Charmer”:

    It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of the road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger-than-life world. “Son of a . . . ” Dean slammed on the brakes of his brand-new Aston Martin Vanquish and pulled over in front of her.

    From Cherry Adair’s new book “Afterglow”:

    Rand McGuire could just see the headline now: XXX Wedding Hollywood Stars Bare All!

    From Johanna Lindsey, “A Heart So Wild”:

    ELROY Brower slammed down his mug of beer in annoyance. The commotion across the saloon was distracting him from the luscious blonde sitting on his lap, and it was seldom Elroy got his hands on as tempting a creature as Big Sal. It was damned frustrating to keep getting interrupted. (FYI, Elroy is NOT the hero but a villain 🙂 )

    Reply
    • I *love* that opening from Natural Born Charmer, and almost included it in my list. It was a toss up, but This Heart of Mine won. Obviously, SEP has some great ones.

      Thanks for adding to the list!

      Reply
  4. Joanna,

    I remember a mtg at NJRW where we had editors and an agent come talk to us. One spoke about opening lines that caught her attention. She mentioned one of the woman on the floor between the man’s legs and than it went into fixing a car. Since she really liked that’s started my second book kinda of in that fashion. My first book I just entered in a contest and was told the whole beginning is not needed. It is drama Nd does not move the story along. I deleted 2,000 words, started where the interesting scene is, and realized it was a smart move. I am trying to work a third book, my story is basically all thought out (it only has to be 20k) but I do not know how to start it. I am seriously thinking of starting it with She licked it in a complete circle tasting the delicious taste. Hot dogs were a rare treat that (insert name not thought of yet) did not get often.
    Seriously Cassandra Clare, ya author, says she does the first chapter last. I’m thinking of following her advice this time.

    Lori

    Reply
    • Lori

       /  April 30, 2012

      She licked in a complete circle tasting the delicious SALT.

      Typos are worse than children when they want to embarass you.

      Reply
      • Hi Lori! I like it! And I always end up rewriting the opening a few times, especially after you’ve written some of it and have a better feel for the story/characters.

        I read blog posts researching this where agents have decided yes or no based on the opening line. Talk about pressure!

  5. hieubietusa

     /  May 1, 2012

    Talk about hitting the nail on the head. First, your examples of great first lines were just that…GREAT!
    Now, that nail I was talking about. Flashbacks in the beginning. I am actually going back to a completed work…turned down many times…save the FB till you are thoroughly into the main character…thanks
    Joe…

    Reply
    • Thanks, Joe! Yeah, it’s pretty widely thought that flashbacks should be worked into backstory later. I always write a prologue for my stories even though I don’t use them. I think it helps to know the character’s history and backstory. So never fear…you’ll use that flashback. Waste nothing!

      Reply
  6. jennablueblogs

     /  May 1, 2012

    Joanna,
    I love the Crawford Killian quote—fantastic & dead on!
    And I love the first lines you chose to show: I now have a smile on to start my day!
    Thanks!!!
    Jenna Blue

    Reply
  7. Wonderful first liners, Joanna. I, too, have re-written my first line & first chapter(s) numerous times. It’s a painful process. And when you find that perfect line, it just all clicks into place. Here are some of my favorite lines:

    “Every time the New England Patriots chalked one up in the win column, Kevin Kowalski got laid.” from Shannon Stacey’s “Undeniably Yours”

    “Katie Long wasn’t sure how they’d gone from “would you like another drink” to crawling all over each other half-naked in the oceanfront estate’s hall bathroom, but that’s what happened.” from HelenKay Dimon’s “Impulsive”

    Reply
    • Hi Maria! Both great first lines. I love Shannon Stacey. Must admit I haven’t read HKD, but I need to. Thanks!

      Reply
  8. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  May 4, 2012

    Oh, Joanna…so many good openings, and I am so fried right now, the only one that comes to mind is “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I love that opening from P&P, too. It totally sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

    This was an informative and fun blog post. Great job!

    Hugs,
    Jaye

    Reply
  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  May 7, 2012

    Excellent Blog post, Joanna, with so many helpful hints and reminders. Beginnings are tough. Back when I first started to write, I ended up cutting about 20K words from the beginning of my first manuscript before I actually reached the BEGINNING! The first line of your WIP is very intriguing and entertaining. Thanks for all the great opening lines. This, of course has me evaluating my opening line!

    RoseAnn

    Reply
    • Hi RoseAnn,

      Glad you liked it! Beginnings ARE tough–although so are middles and endings. 🙂 Good luck with your story.

      Reply
  10. “Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she’d planned on taking to her sister’s wedding and thought, Those days are gone.”

    BET ME by Jennifer Crusie

    Awesome post! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Misty,

      I love that book! It’s one of her best.

      Glad you liked the post and thanks for stopping by.

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
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    found It absolutely helpful and it has helped me out loads.

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    Reply
  1. How Do You Share Backstory Information | Jen's Pen Den

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