Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

How to start a novel

The first chapter is vitally important, especially in commercial fiction, because this is where you have to hook the reader. The opening should introduce the main character(s), the story problem (or a strong hint of the problem), and the catalytic event (the “motivating incident”), and it should give the reader a general idea of what the story is going to be about. Find a point in time where protagonisr, motivating incident, and problem converge and let the action, the characters, and the plot develop from there. If your first chapter does not open with the protagonist (it doesn’t have to), then it should begin with some intriguing action that raises questions that the reader wants to see answered.


A good way to jump-start a story is to begin with your main character (MC) involved in some activity. This doesn’t have to be the slam-bam blow-up-bridges kind of action. Dialogue is action, too. Just so you have somebody doing something. That action will be more interesting if it at least implies what the main story problem is. This stimulates the MC to take some action in response. That’s when your story starts moving. After that, always think of your story in terms of problem, struggle, and resolution (beginning, middle, and end). Readers should be able to see or surmise trouble of some kind in the first chapter.


Literary agent Jenny Bent says:


I am reading so many beautifully written novels whose descriptions in the query sound fantastic—full of plot and intrigue. But when I sit down to read said novels, I find myself reading page after page of description and conversation with no real movement forward in terms of plot. I've said it before: start your story, don't set up your story. From right around page one, I want to be plunked down in the middle of intrigue. I'm not saying write a mystery, but I am saying that I want there to be a kind of mystery element, a reason to keep reading because I want to know what happens next. Let your book pose a question almost from page one: will Annabelle find her father? Who is the mysterious character following Bob? What is the story behind the family bible with significant words blacked out? Will Jane find love (and more importantly marriage) with Bingley? What is the story behind the Wickham-Darcy feud? Will Lydia be rescued in time?


Even the most character-driven novels, in my opinion, work because you love the character so much that you want to see what happens to them next. Will they get the promotion, fall in love, get the girl, lose the weight, find their dog? There's still a question being posed, so you keep reading to get the answer.







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