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Starting A Novel

Richard Beard

A novel has to start somewhere. It doesn’t, however, have to start at the beginning.

Here lies the challenge of writing a novel: decisions need to be made, but the options can feel close to unlimited. Defer making decisions, and the novel will never take shape – the decision of where to start is among the most significant.

Fortunately, the opening doesn’t need to be finalized before one or many drafts can progress. Don’t let an elusive perfect first page stop you from writing, because the novel’s opening may be easier to spot amongst words you have written rather than the infinite possibility of all those words you haven’t. There are, however, useful reminders of what an effective opening aims to achieve.

Some readers are like kindly relatives. They’ll start in on your book willing it to succeed, and may give whatever opening you choose the benefit of the doubt. Others, however, are born skeptics. They prepare themselves for your first paragraph by asking what kind of rubbish is this? These are the readers you need to convince. First of all, you want your opening to say that whatever else this may be, it’s my kind of rubbish.

Ideally, the first pages will condense a distilled experience of what the book has to offer by way of tone, theme and reader expectation, most of which will be unique to you and your talent. The start of the book establishes the writer-reader contract the book aims to fulfil, so it’s worth thinking in terms of promises the novel will go on to keep. 

As an example, the opening is rarely a space in which to go looking for the novel’s language and style. This is what earlier drafts are for, and in the finished version that opening page should announce itself in a style that reads as fully-formed and confident. Whatever type of story you’re writing, this will create an immediate sense of authority: the reader will feel safe in your narrative hands, because your assured style shows you know what you’re doing.

The start of the novel is therefore a demonstration that you’ve made the many other big decisions that go into the process of creating a successful fiction. The narrative point of view, the tenses, the diction and structure should feel utterly resolved from the very first sentence. This confidence then communicates itself as a promise – my novel is worth your time because look, I’ve made up my mind and I know what I’m doing.

The National Academy of Writing

With the content, the beginning is also about promises. Choose a point in the story from which other events and emotions must surely follow. You’re looking for a setting or scene or state of mind or conversation or group dynamic that implies consequences and a route towards the deepening complications to come.

What exactly those complications might be remains a question for the reader to ponder. Or in other words, a hook. Mission accomplished.

Richard will be leading an exclusive ten-week writing course for Writers & Artists from Wednesday 16th March 2016. The course - for a maximum of 12 people - is aimed at authors with at least one draft of their manuscript behind them, and boasts workshop sessions with award-winning authors and publishing industry professionals. Booking information

Richard Beard has published three books of narrative non-fiction and six novels including Lazarus is Dead and Damascus, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and and his latest novel Acts of the Assassins was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2015