The critical subject of How to Begin is a popular one at most writers’ workshops and conferences, and for a good reason. Browsers in bookstores spend less than 10 seconds making a purchasing decision. They pick up a book, read the opening paragraphs, maybe skim the back cover copy and then decide: does your book go into the shopping cart, or back on the shelf?
An effective beginning must do at least two things: it must introduce your protagonist, and create a question in the reader’s mind. It may also hint at your story’s conflict.
Here are some common ways not to start a novel, ways that are usually not effective enough to influence the would-be book buyer:
Don’t start with a dream. It confuses the reader once you pull her out of the dream and into present action. Starting your story with your main character waking up is also uninspiring to your readers. Show your character already awake and begin with his first significant action. ( Which usually means not showing him getting out of bed, hitting the shower, eating breakfast, deciding what to wear, etc). If you’ve put such action into your opening sequence, you’ve begun your story too soon. Go back and take it out.
Don’t start with a flashback. Backstory belongs in the back of the story. Begin in the present, and after you’ve established your character, her goal, motivation, and the story’s conflict, add bits of backstory throughout the novel, saving the most important piece of information until near the end. Avoid the “information dump” in which you unload all the backstory at one time.
Don’t begin with a long description. Charles Dickens could spend pages and pages describing the wallpaper and his readers would follow him into the story, but modern readers are accustomed to a more succinct and action-drive style of writing. Your reader will care whether or not it’s raining only as it affects your characters.
So then, how should you begin? Story analyst Christopher Vogler, in his two voulume book The Writer’s Journey, suggests beginning by showing your protagonist in her ordinary world. A magazine editor is at her desk, worrying about deadlines and ad revenue. A farm woman rises before daybreak and goes out to the back porch to bring in kindling for the cookstove. A police detective tiptoes into his little girl’s room to kiss her goodbye before strapping on his weapon and leaving for work.
But then something happens. Something that shakes the editor, the farm wife, the police detective out of their ordinary worlds and compels them to act. Vogler terms this “something” the call to adventure. The editor receives a call: her husband wants a divorce. The farm wife opens the back door and discovers an abandoned baby on the porch. The police detective discovers that his superior is involved with drug runners. In each case, the protagonist’s ordinary world has tilted. Action is required.
And so your story begins. Give us an interesting character, show us a bit of his or her ordinary world, then shake that world up, and your story is off to a promising start.