The Place Where All Stories Begin

I thought it would be appropriate to start the New Year focusing on beginnings. Most authors know that the beginning or opening of a novel is the most crucial and carries the weightiest burden of any other scene or chapter in your entire book. The opening scene must convey so many things that often the author will have to rewrite it numerous times to get it right, and sometimes the best time to rewrite the opening scene is when your novel is done.

Why? Because at that point you have (hopefully) developed your rich themes and motifs, thoroughly explored your protagonist’s heart and character arc, and have brought your plot to a stunning and satisfying conclusion (you can be sure we’ll be going in depth regarding ending scenes later on).

 Starting Is Better Than Finishing

There’s a saying (actually it’s from the Bible) that goes like this: “Finishing is better than starting.” And therein lies great wisdom, to be sure. You can start a whole lot of projects but the real test of perseverance, success, and merit is in the finishing. However . . . when it comes to writing a great novel, starting is more important than finishing—at least when it comes to the importance of your major story elements. If you have every essential thing in place in your first scene, you will have set up the entire book in a way that will lead you wonderfully to the finish line.

 Too many writers just jump in and throw together a first scene for their novel without taking the time to look at the heart of the story or the big picture—and that is what this Wednesday blog is all about. There are plenty of websites and blogs with great content covering every major element and technique needed to write a great novel, but few if any are really focusing on the big picture and the heart of what makes your novel terrific.

Literary agent Donald Maass hits this right on the head in his book The Fire in the Fiction, and I’m sure I’ll be quoting from him a lot. Many literary agents and acquisition editors complain that despite good writing overall, many books are just missing something. They don’t inspire, move, or touch the heart—and yes, believe it or not, they do expect to have that experience, at least in part, upon reading your first opening scene.

Impossible? Not at all. I have read some unbelievably powerful, moving, heart-wrenching first scenes—and those books were most often big best sellers. That’s not to say all best sellers succeed at stirring this type of reaction—far from it! But those gems of books that can so move the reader so quickly are noticed. Big-time.

 First Page Checklist

So, be prepared to delve into the deep, challenging elements you will need to understand and then convey in your opening scene. I’m going to spend quite a few posts discussing these elements and concepts—many of which may be new to you. But in the meantime, download my first-page checklist  and look it over, for I’ll be going over these elements. And be sure to subscribe to this feed so you won’t miss any of the posts on your first scene essentials. Just to give you a glimpse of the first scene essentials, here are a few of the elements that should be making an appearance on your very first page:

  • Opening hook
  • Sympathetic introduction of your protagonist
  • Delving into an inciting incident or moment of conflict
  • A nod to setting
  • Hint of protagonist’s visible goal, intentions, need
  • Establishing tone and voice
  • Introduction of the plot goal

So, I hope one of your major New Year’s goals is to learn how to begin—begin a novel in a way that will leave readers eager to turn pages and keep reading. Tune in next week as we start excavating the first scene to reach the mother lode—the heart of your story. Be sure to subscribe to this blog feed so you won’t miss out on any of the deep writing insights I’ll be sharing!

This week, think about your novel and your current first scene. Read some “first scenes” from your favorite books and note what stands out, what affects you, what makes you want to keep reading. And if you feel inclined to share a line or thought or two, please post here so we can look at what moves you.

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  1. I have had two agents tell me my romance novel starts out too slow, so I am heading back to about the 12th? edit. I was trying to get all of the above into the opening. One said the novel was overwritten and when I inquired further, she said too many descriptive words.
    SO HERE COME THE scissors!
    Thanks for all your articles, they are quite helpful!
    Blessings for a wonderful New Year. Elva Cobb Martin,
    Anderson, SC

  2. Thanks for doing this. I agree that always striving to improve your craft of writing is important, and a perfect way to start the new year. I am so glad to have joined this Crime Fiction group!

  3. You’re so right about the first scene, and the fact that often you shouldn’t try to revise it until you’ve finished the first draft. I’m a believer in Anne Lamott’s theory of writing lots of shitty first drafts. It’s the only way to learn your craft.

    Judith Marshall
    Author of “Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever,” optioned for the big screen

  4. This for this – I’m looking forward to your next post!

    I have been struggling to write (editor by day, dad by night, writer by…oh, wait, that’s when I should be sleeping) the opening for awhile, and the consequences of every decision weigh so heavily on the story that I’m very receptive to the forthcoming advice about the heart of the story.

    My favorite novel beginnings – the ones I go back to for fun and inspiration – are Suzanne Collins’ in The Hunger Games (she starts every thread in that scene, and continues each through the end), Ursula LeGuin’s in The Left Hand of Darkness (tremendous sense of place and of the narrative voice of Genly Ai), and Rick Riordan’s in The Lightning Thief (a funny, sympathetic protagonist and lots of action).

  5. Thanks for posting this article as I am planning to start my first fiction book next year. But first I know I have to do the research on how to actually do this!

    1. This course I’m doing on Writing the Heart of Your Story will be perfect for you. It’s an entire in-depth look at how to fahsion a novel that really speaks to the heart. It’s not so much about the nuts and bolts of novel writing but deeper–more about how to encapsulate the theme and intent of your passion and put it together in a way that will be effective and powerful. There’s nothing like it out there! So I hope you will subscribe to the blog and do the weekly lessons to dive into your writing!

  6. I’m eager to read the rest of your suggestions. You provide a great service.
    Carole Emma Mathewson
    Author of “The Hostess of Providence,” a one-woman, one-act play concerning life in early Providence, Rhode Island–available as an Amazon ebook, through the Kindle Store–priced at 99 cents.
    Author of a Civil War novel, “Forward into Battle: The Story of a Union Surgeon and his Nurse.” I am attempting to find a literary agent who will accept my Civil War story.

  7. Thanks for the tips. Just yesterday, I had to go back to the beginning of the novel I’m writing. Too much exposition. I ended up putting the third chapter second to jump more quickly into the action. It’s true, hints of conflict should be somehow introduced early.

  8. Excellent advice, and a really useful list I shall be refering to soon.
    My novel is nearly finished and I’m itching to get back to re-write that opening, but I’m restraining myself until I’m done. During the writing, my characters have developed in directions I didn’t forsee when I began, and the opening I wrote to link into the finale I had envisaged no longer works with the end that is in view.
    Loking forward to the rest of the series.

  9. Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you, However I am encountering problems with your RSS.
    I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to join it. Is there anybody else getting similar RSS issues? Anyone that knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

    1. Hi and thanks. No one else seems to have had a problem. I will see if there is something going on. You can also have the posts sent to your email.

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