The thing about starting a novel is that you have to start somewhere. This is the first major decision you will have to make and it can become a source of angst. Not to put too fine a point on it but the beginning of the story, that first sentence and paragraph is the most important part of the novel. If that is botched, then it doesn’t matter how great the rest of the novel is because chances are only a few will ever see it. The beginning of your novel is your chance to hook your readers so they are compelled to read on. If you miss that opportunity it is very difficult to make it up later. So what makes a good beginning? It really boils down to creating the maximum impact in the shortest amount of time and this can be accomplished easily by using an age old technique.
The term “in medias res” gets used a lot. It means “in the middle of things.” When someone says a story starts in medias res, what they are saying is that the story is beginning in the thick of things, right where the excitement or drama is. This doesn’t have to be action or anything like that. It can be simple like a character choosing to go right instead of left. But what’s important is that something is happening as soon as the reader opens the cover. Think of the events of the story as occurring in a room. There is one door into the room. Now imagine the scene playing out and the reader walking in the door. Ask yourself, “If the reader walkdc in at this point, what will her reaction be?” Keep asking this until you get to the point where the answer you get is, “She’d probably feel a bit confused but exhilarated/scared/amused.” Essentially what you want is to open at the point that will trigger an emotion in your readers. So this means start with action, conflict, drama. This is why every time you look at a list of things to never ever do in writing you will see to never ever start with describing the character waking up in the morning and going through his normal routine. The reason for this should be obvious. Unless the character is waking up to an alien invasion or to a strange man or woman naked in his bed, there is no tension, no drive. Again, what you want is to trigger a response in the reader so that she will want to see how this initial problem is resolved. But you can’t just start in the middle of any conflict. You have to choose at what point the story will kick in.
Technically you could find various places in the character’s life to start the story but what we’re interested in is the point of contact that will essentially tie directly into the main body of the story. By point of contact I mean the point, the event, the choice that leads the character to going through the events of the story. One problem I’ve had is that I’ve pushed the story too far back in the time line and the result is a very boring opening and one that is really a set up for the actual story. For instance it sets up the character and his interactions with another character. It leads up to the main event eventually but it takes too much time getting there while meandering about building character and setting up the setting. Part of what I found was that I was just writing at cross-purposes. Since the original beginning was too far back it had it’s own thread running through it that would take too long to develop into the thread of the story I was trying to write. It would have eventually gotten there but for the moment, it was stuck. Which brings me to an important point. Just jump right into the main artery of the story. Otherwise, what happens is that things get muddled and hard to follow. So now that I’ve bumped the story forward things are going much better. The character is actually appearing more organic now that he’s been put in a more exciting situation and his character is much better defined. All because I’ve moved the beginning of the story forward. There is a greater sense of cohesion that will tie the entire novel together from beginning to end.
In the end, you have to work hard to write a strong beginning. Choosing where to begin and knowing how to begin will make sure that your first sentences will lure the reader into the story you are telling. Give them what is always irresistible: a problem that they want to see solved, a longing in need of fulfillment, a question they need to see answered. Do that and you will find they will read on.