How Not to Start Your Novel, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about how not to start your novel. One of the most common questions I see from new writers is how to start. I can't necessarily tell you how to start your novel, but I can tell you how not to, particularly if you want to find an agent or a publisher.

I follow a couple of thousand people on Twitter, largely other authors, many of whom are self-published. The self-published people love to hawk their books, and I like to go to Amazon to “Look Inside,” which I do mainly out of curiosity. It interests me how people start their books. 

There are two very popular ways of beginning a novel among the self-published crowd: by someone waking up, or by someone (usually a woman) being chased.

The main character waking up

If you Google “how not to start a novel,” you will find many articles on the subject. One thing all these articles have in common is that they tell you not to start with a character waking up (or any of its variants, such as coming to in a dark room).

Consider this, aspiring writer: I want you to tell me a story. I don’t want to spend five pages with the main character struggling to get out of bed because they’re tired and sleepy. 

It’s cliché. The character’s alarm goes off, they hit snooze, their mom calls up that they’ll be late for school, or for work, they groan and roll over, pulling the covers over their head. This exciting action repeats at least once, and then they finally get up, stretch, yawn, rub the sleep out of their eyes, blah, blah, fucking blah… Sound familiar?

By this point I’m three pages in (actually, I quit reading when the alarm went off) and all I want to do is kick the character’s ass. As an author, that is not what you want.

Of course, you can find plenty of traditionally published novels that start with people waking up, or getting out of a car, or with the weather, etc. But they are not you. Unless there is some mighty compelling artistic reason for needing to start your novel with a character waking up, don’t do it.

Someone being chased

“Start with action,” or “start in the middle of things.” Every book and every blog on the subject of writing gives you this advice. And it’s good advice. But what does it mean?

To me it means to start with the character doing something, rather than with pages and pages describing the world and its history.
In my novel, “A Beast in Venice,” I start with the main character walking in Venice at night looking for a martini. In “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” the main character, who is a lawyer, is in court.

In both cases there is no description of the place and time, other than what’s woven into the narrative, and then only to the extent necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. We start to learn about the characters from what they say, do, and think. 

It gives the reader a chance to get to know the character, and hopefully begin to care what happens to them, before anything bad happens.

I have seen a number of self-published novels where the author has interpreted “start with action” to mean start with the character being chased by someone (or something) intent on causing them serious bodily harm. Often this chase is taking place in a dark forest, or in the alleys of a city at night.

What’s wrong with that? I don’t know the character, and I don’t care what happens to him or her. How do I know the person being chased is the good guy? Maybe they’re running from the father of a little boy they just raped. I don’t have anything invested in the character.

The other thing is that a novel has to have rising action. If you start your novel with a big, violent scene, you’d better ramp it up from there. The reader expects things to get much worse for your character before they get better.

You’re thinking, “But I just watched ‘Casino Royale,’ and it started with a big chase, and shooting, and things blowing up.” Yes. That’s because it’s James Bond. You already know everything there is about him (did you know he’s an orphan?). From the time he appears on screen you’re invested in his character.

Not so with yours, unless it’s part of a series, I suppose.

The Hero’s Journey, as described in “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler, starts with the character in her ordinary world. This is our chance to see who the character is, and what her problem is. We (hopefully) develop an interest in what happens to her. Then, when the monster is chasing her through the woods, we know who to root for.

There are few rules in writing. It is a rule that a proper name is capitalized, or that a sentence ends with a period. Not start with someone waking up is not a rule, and neither is not starting with someone being chased. They are guidelines, or suggestions, or maybe even best practices. You should, however, think long and hard before you ignore them.