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.


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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