Why the beginning of your novel is so important

...In the beginning (your full name here) created the concept of his/her novel, but still the novel was formless and void, and darkness lay over the pages of the novel--a darkness with limitless potential to become anything (your full name here) desired it to become. For (your full name here) had not yet penned a word down, and thereby was not bound or restrained to half-concocted characters or plots not fully exploited...the novel still had all the potential of achieving perfection within the author's mind...and (your full name here) patiently plotted his/her characters, seeking thirstily for the culmination of drama and the zenith of emotion his/her characters could reach. And (your full name here) plotted his plot with patient attention, testing many roads leading to potential outcomes, but waiting, waiting, waiting for that one road--the road of roads, that would lead him/her to maximum power for his characters whom he lovingly has shaped in perfect unity alongside his plot of plots. And in the end, when the novel is done, (your full name here) said, "It is VERY good."

The beginning of your novel determines how you will reach the end. Even though you may go back and completely change your beginning to fit your ending, you nevertheless got to that ending from your initial beginning. Your characters began from that beginning. Your plot, your world, your themes, sprang from those first few chapters...those first 7,000-10,000 words.

For me, it is crucial that I painstakingly create the start of my novel, fleshing out my characters, my plot, my world, my themes and changing them over and over again until I find the right mix that will serve as my foundation for the rest of the novel. The end might still be undecided and the second half may still be fuzzy, but at least--through patient plotting--I've given myself an excellent beginning to spring from.

From the get go we want a clear focused attack that will send our characters into terrible struggles and heart-wrenching situations. We want our characters to have flaws that heighten the drama around them and draw the reader into their inner turmoil. And we want to carefully create secondary characters to amplify the struggles and flaws--within and without--our main characters.

Having a strong foundation to begin upon allows an author to quickly and efficiently get into his/her characters. It allows the plot to sizzle from the start. You've heard the writing advice, "start your novel as late as possible and in medias res," well in my opinion, to do this with the most force and power, you don't want to start off with a half-cocked plot, and a general idea for a character. It can even be tempting to have the plot down, but not the character, or the character down, but not the plot. Both of these situations are a recipe for disaster in my opinion, and a REAL pain to edit out later!!

No, if you want to grab the reader by the scruff of his neck and keep him reading, you've got to show a little patience at the start, figure out a dynamic character and a thrilling plot, and then you'll be glad you did as you hurtle that reader headlong into the tsunami you've prepared for them.

16 comments:

KM Wilsher said...

I have to say this is so true and what I've heard time and time again from real writers like you!

I have been observing and gathering information and learning from true authors -- The beginning is crucial, that's what I've been told.

And the beginning is what I've fleshed out (probably way more than necassary)

I think I would like to add here, "get another pair of eyes to look at it". That's what I've learned from experience. It is such an "ah ha moment" to get comments on the beginning of my novel. Until that second pair of eyes looks over it, I am in tunnel vision. Once someone else looks at it I am aware, and sometimes embarassed LOL

The second pair of eyes can really give you new perspective, don't you think?

I wonder sometimes at novels I open. The first chapter is boring or confusing. . .I think, isn't that the core of your novel? Isn't this the part you've worked on over an over?

Then there are those I pick up and can't put down- because the beginning has grabbed me and started me on a journey I intend to finish - ahhhhh that is the joy of reading!

great post, BB.

Brandon said...

Hey KM :)
I agree, a second, third...tenth pair of eyes is incredibly important. And as we continue to write, all those critiques we get on older works help sharpen the way we write are newer works in progress. The result: better, sharper first drafts. And that allows for our valued critiquers to go deeper for us!
Yeah, I'm with you on appreciating those novels that put you immediately into the story. That's good story telling.

Peter Stone said...

Ah, the beginning of this post, so true! How often do we write a book, and think it's very good, until we show someone in the industry. And then comes the sad realisation. (well, for me anyway, LOL.)

I've been studying how to start a novel from "Revision And Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction)" by James Scott Bell, and have since completely scrapped my fantasy novel's first chapter, and replaced with something different. Still a prologue, though.

Happy to send you the 'before and afters' to look at if your curious. (I hope my latter effort is better...)

Brandon said...

Hey Peter,
We all live and learn! I know I've done the same thing. I started with short stories and got some pretty harsh critiques...but as the years and my total word count rises, I continue to sharpen my writing. I'm sure you'll do the same!

Yeah, send over the first chapters to my email bjbstories@yahoo

Jeff and Aimee said...

Hey Brandon--Since you seem to be in such a generous mood, I'll ask if you would mind perusing MY first chapter? :) I want real feedback, not a courtesy pat on the back. I can take it! Let me know--Aimee

Brandon said...

I'd love to Aimee! :) send it my way...
bjbstories@yahoo.com

logankstewart said...

This was a great post, Brandon, though I typically find the end game more difficult than the beginnings. Perhaps I should revise/revisit my "genesis" and see what happens?

Again, excellent post.

Brandon said...

hi Logan,
Glad you liked the post :)

Chris said...

Hey, awesome post. I totally agree with you.

With my book, A Twin Hope, I didn't have the characters "down." You're right, it's a pain to edit.

Since writing my novel I've made a new rule for myself: do not give a character dialogue unless you can write a scene from their POV. I actually have a folder on my computer of the same scene written from twenty different POVs. That was an excercise that helped me a lot.

What I love, though, is when the character steals the show and becomes real in a way you hadn't foreseen. So I say, yeah, know your characters, but leave room for them to grow.

Hmm. I won't ask you to look over my stuff. It still needs more editing. lol

Brandon said...

Hey Chris :)
I agree with you when you say it's important to leave room for a character to grow. We definitely need characters who surprise even the author writing them. Giving the character great stuff to work with makes those surprised come a lot easier, because are characters are so complex from the get go.
Great rule by the way--going back and changing dialogue is really really tough, because dialogue shapes the characters and the scenes, and how we write the scenes.
Hey, when you get that first chapter squared away...

Amy Deardon said...

Hi Brandon, what a great post! Starting a new novel is scary business. I read that Dean Koontz likes to think of a compelling first sentence and write from there, but I'm with you, I need to know where I'm going with it. So, how's the writing going? Can't wait to read it!

Brandon said...

Hey Amy,
Yeah, Dean Koontz is incredibly talented too!! There's definitely crazy variation on how art is accomplished...some people even write from the end to the beginning.
The writing is going alright. I've got the vision, but now I've got to buckle down and find time to focus...it's a bit tough right now with a new baby!!
Maybe I'll post my first scene up after I polish it some...that'll give everyone a glimpse of what I'm doing.

Andra M. said...

I had to chuckle at your comment about not having the focus to write because of the new baby. Been there! Heck, with a now two-year-old, I'm still there.

For my novel, I bet I've worked the first three chapters 20 more times than the rest of the book. The first paragraph is twice that, I bet.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but only a little.

And since you're offering first chapter perusals, got room for another one?

Brandon said...

Hey Andra,

Yeah, baby's definitely make scheduled time difficult to...schedule. :)
Sounds like we both obsess over the beginning of our novels :)
Yes, Andra, send me your first chapter and I'll give it a critique!

Peter Stone said...

Hi Brandon
Sorry, this has taken me a l.o.n.g. time to get back to you, but I've posted that prologue/first chapter of my novel, in two posts, at this blog.
www.aswordfortheking.blogspot.com

Your feedback would be appreciated, and feel free to be brutal, LOL.

(I won't be trying to get this published, by the way.)

Brandon said...

Hey Peter,
I'll take a look and give you some feed back asap :)