Where to Start Your Book
So you’re ready to sit down and start writing your new book. Only, you’re realizing that although you’ve spent the past few days, weeks, or maybe even months mulling over this epic story idea, you have no idea where to begin. Start a story too early, and you risk boring the reader with meandering vignettes that have nothing to do with the main plot. Start a story too late, and you risk confusing the reader by dropping them into the middle of a story with zero context or investment in the characters. Where, then, is the right place to start a story?
An easy trick is to pay attention next time a friend tells you about how crazy their Friday night was. In all likelihood, they’re not going to start that story by saying “So I woke up at 8:00 a.m. on an overcast Friday morning, yawned as I looked in the mirror at my frizzy purple hair and dazzling silver eyes, and recalled how 10,000 years ago the dark lord Malagoth awoke from his eternal slumber…” No. They’re going to get right to the point. Take a cue from that friend: get to the point.
Most stories are kicked into gear by what we call the inciting incident—the event that serves as a catalyst for the rest of the story. You’ll want to start as close as possible to your novel’s inciting incident. You may wonder: why not just start with the inciting incident and be done with it? Well, recall what I said about starting too late. In order for the reader to fully appreciate the gravity of the inciting incident, you usually have to lay a little groundwork first. So here’s what you do. Pinpoint the inciting incident. Ask yourself if the reader has all the background information they need and if they’re invested enough in the characters to fully appreciate this scene. If the answer’s no, rewind a little bit. How about now? Still no? Rewind some more. Keep rewinding until you find a fitting place to drop your reader in without the need for any prior context.
But we’re not done yet. Step one is starting as close as possible to the main action of the story. But you still need to make sure you’re starting at a spot that’s, you know, interesting. How does one make a pre–inciting incident scene interesting? One way is to shine the spotlight on a moment of tension that highlights the personal or thematic struggles your protagonist is going to be grappling with over the course of the novel.
That’s all very abstract, isn’t it? Let’s walk through some concrete examples and see how some of our favourite authors have employed these techniques to craft the perfect beginning.
Example One: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re concerned with the chronological point in the story that the author chose to focus on in the first chapter—we’ll leave the discussion of opening hooks (a term which here means having the intrusive and witty narrator implore you not to read this wretched book) for another time. The novel begins with Mr. Poe arriving on Briny Beach to tell the Baudelaire orphans that their parents “have perished in a terrible fire.” Mr. Poe has come to deliver the orphans to their new guardian, Count Olaf, a decision which sets off, quite literally, a series of unfortunate events. If Mr. Poe’s arrival is the inciting incident, the preamble leading up to it provides us with everything we need to know in order to care: we get quick sketches of each of the Baudelaires, through which we learn just how happy their life was up until this point. In this case, we didn’t need to rewind very far. This is, after all, middle grade, so we don’t want to dawdle around for too long.
Tension is established through the setting: we meet the Baudelaires as they stand alone on the otherwise vacant Briny Beach on a miserable, cloudy day. The pathetic fallacy represents the miserable and unforgiving world the orphans find themselves in, and the lack of other beach-goers foreshadows the fact that the siblings wind up alone in a world without anyone but each other to rely on. Despite the vacancy of the beach and the gloomy weather, the Baudelaires make the best of things by employing their unique talents—this demonstrates their resilience in the face of hardship. And then, of course, Mr. Poe shows up to deliver the bad news, and they wind up literally alone and miserable. A perfectly bad beginning to a perfectly tragic tale.
Example Two: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
For those not in the know, The Hunger Games is about a girl named Katniss who participates—in place of her sister, Prim—in an annual battle royal that is meant to keep the oppressed lower-class citizens of the dystopian world of Panem oppressed. Participants are chosen through an event called the reaping. Our inciting incident is Prim’s name being drawn during the reaping, which leads Katniss to volunteer in her stead. The reaping occurs right at the end of the first chapter—young adult also gets straight to the point fairly quickly. But we don’t start with the reaping. We rewind to earlier that morning because we need to establish how much Katniss cares about her sister. We also need to entrench the reader in the dystopian setting.
The reader is introduced both to the world and to Katniss’s motivations through two moments of tension that highlight the character’s struggles and core beliefs. There’s the hunting scene, where we learn how scarce food is in Katniss’s district. That scene also establishes Katniss’s refusal to play by the rules—she sneaks outside of the confines of her district to hunt. If we rewind a bit further to the opening scene, we see Katniss wake up to find that Prim’s side of the bed is cold. The fact that Prim’s absence is the first thing she notices, and the fact that she proceeds to talk about Prim for the next page or so, establishes the importance of that relationship. The various scenes in this chapter also show us that Katniss is willing to go to great lengths to ensure the wellbeing of those she cares about, a fact that will become crucial in the novel’s climax.
Example Three: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
For our last example, let’s venture into adult fiction. Things get a bit tricky here, since this book has a prologue. Because Martin is such a masterful writer, the prologue leads directly into the opening chapter—all he did was rewind a bit further and swap POVs in order to give the readers a sneak peak of the supernatural elements of the story. But the real narrative begins with Ned Stark, so let’s skip ahead to chapter one.
The inciting incident is when King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell and asks Ned Stark to serve as Hand of the King. This doesn’t happen until the fourth chapter—since this story is of grander scale, there are a lot more pieces that need to be put into place before the reader can fully appreciate the inciting incident. We need to know about some of the other players in this game of thrones, which is why we get a chapter introducing Daenerys, who aims to reclaim the throne on behalf of the Targaryen family. We need to learn about the death of Jon Arryn (really, this story is too complex to summarize—suffice it to say this death sets everything in motion), so we get a chapter where we learn this news. And we need to meet the Stark family, so we begin with a chapter from the POV of one of Ned's children, Bran.
But the story doesn’t start with just an ordinary day in Bran’s life. Instead, Bran witnesses his father execute a deserter (a deserter who has witnessed the encroaching forces of evil that will become a major plot point). This execution serves as a moment of tension that highlights a character’s core beliefs and lets us know what kinds of struggles they’ll be facing—although, in this case, the character we’re learning about is Ned. Ned is a man of honour, who believes that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Bran struggles to watch this execution (giving us our tension), which Ned performs without hesitation (solidifying the type of character he is). Ned’s insistence on following the just path is pivotal to the events that follow and is directly responsible for the novel’s climax.
So, as the above authors have demonstrated, start your story as close as possible to the inciting incident. And don’t pick just any random scene; pick a moment of tension or conflict that will allow you to highlight the key struggles your character is going to face, the core beliefs that drive them, or the thematic elements around which your book revolves. For bonus points, try to do all three. A common bit of writing advice that gets tossed around is to cut your first chapter. The reason being that most authors stumble through their first chapter, using it more as a tool to write themselves into the book rather than to get the story up and running. But I can guarantee you this: if you follow the advice we’ve gone over here, you’ll never have to worry about cutting an irrelevant first chapter again.