What’s the best way to begin a novel? Personally, I don’t think there are any right or wrong ways to start (though I’m sure plenty (e.g. Sambuchino, 2013) would disagree) – but I do think that the beginning needs to achieve something; it needs to add texture to the story.
I’ve grabbed a couple of books to see how their authors have tackled the beginning, and hopefully I’ll learn a thing or two from them.
I had to start with this one, because it’s my favourite and I always have it to hand. It also starts with a prologue (an unforgivable sin to most literary agents) but still went on to win several awards.
Prologue – A very ominous summary of how the space-mission came to be and a foreshadowing of the result. ‘They meant no harm’ is the concluding sentence.
Chapter 1 – Starts in the middle of the plot; Emilio has returned from the space mission alone and close to death. He slowly begins to recover but 70 years have passed and people are eager to learn what went wrong
What a beginning, right? The horrible sensation of dread from the prologue leads nicely into the first chapter and I’m dying to find out what went wrong. I think it’s that concluding sentence that really does it for me, because I suddenly care about the entire crew without even knowing their names.
This book also starts with another writing ‘taboo’ – having the main character wake up (although fair enough, it’s from a cryotube and not a bed).
Chapter 1 – Rosemary wakes up from cryostasis earlier than expected because her tube keeps malfunctioning. We receive hints to an upcoming job of hers (the reason she’s travelling) and that she’s obtained a new identity. She’s on the run.
I like this beginning because it starts up the active question very quickly. What is Rosemary running from, and how will it affect her new job? There’s a good sense of intrigue.
This one fuses the previous two techniques: we have another prologue, followed by another ‘waking’ up scene (funnily enough, also from a cryotube).
Prologue – On the playground at school as the protagonist defends a boy from bullies. We find out he is missing half his brain (from surgery) and that the boy he’s defending is ‘natural’ (i.e. no eugenics). It also eludes to the future a lot.
Part 1 – Starts in 2nd POV and puts you into the head of the main character. He wakes up from cryostasis, five years late, to find that the ship has taken them far out of our solar system.
To me the prologue here is for filling in detail. We find out that our main character stands up for the little guy and also that we must be in the future (with eugenics and weird brain surgeries).
The start of part one is a bit of an abrupt change into 2nd POV but it slips back into 1st relatively quickly. There are some really lovely descriptions of the body reawakening. It feels like it’s really happening to you.
Both prologues could probably have been removed, but I definitely see the reasons the authors included them. In The Sparrow, it creates a sense of dread that follows you through the entire book, and in Blindsight it shows the moment where the protagonist claims the story started.
So how can I use these examples to develop my project? Initially I had a similar ‘waking’ up scene (from a bed, the horror!) so I will definitely change it to something more active. Because my novel is a journey, I want to make sure that my beginning tells something about where that journey literally begins – and why the protagonist would try so hard to return home.
Establishing his home is also critical because we need to see his ‘normality’ before we can highlight how different the other countries/societies are when he experiences them for the first time. I feel he left too quickly in my first draft and, although we got a sense of his family dynamic, we didn’t get a sense of the community he comes from, so a rewrite is in order.
Chambers, Becky (2015) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. UK: Hodder & Stoughton.
Russel, Mary Doyle (1996) The Sparrow. USA: Villard.
Sambuchino, C. (2013) The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents.
Watts, Peter (2006) Blindsight. Canada: Tor.