The Beginning | Elements of a Novel – Part 4

Elements of a Novel: The Beginning

Welcome to Part Four of the Elements of a Novel Series! It’s time to finally dig into the novel itself and explore the beginning! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters, Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure, and Part Three: Setting and World Building.)

The main goal for the beginning of a novel is to introduce your readers to your world, character, and story. Ideally, you want to do this in a fun and interesting way. Let’s take a look at the specifics of what you should aim to introduce and how to keep your audience engaged while you do it!

Introduce the main character

The first priority at the beginning of your story is to introduce your main character. If you want your readers to connect with your story, they need to be anchored and connected to your protagonist as soon as possible.

However, it’s a bit of a balancing act. If you give your readers too much information about your character too fast, you could overwhelm them. Instead, try to stick to the very basics of what your readers need to know about your character to be willing to follow them through the story. Establishing their voice, attitude, and general personality is far more important than establishing their appearance.

If you feel like you’re struggling to create a connection for your readers, consider putting your character in some kind of heightened emotional state. If they’re worried, or stressed, or afraid of something, your reader will likely be able to latch on and relate to those emotions. This is by no means the only way to start a story, but if you’re having a hard time, it might help!

Introduce related characters

Depending on the events you decide to include in your opening scene, you may need to introduce other characters along with your main character. If you’re going to have a handful of characters in your opening scene, it might be ideal to limit additional characters to supporting characters. This will allow you to keep the focus on your protagonist, while allowing them to have company in the scene.

Alternatively, if you want to include two main characters in the opening scene, you might want to think about limiting the scene to just the two of them. This will help readers get to know the characters and emphasize their importance without pulling focus to less important characters.

But keep in mind, these are not hard and fast rules. They’re guidelines that I have found make for a successful character introduction. You should absolutely be open to modifying as it makes sense for the beginning of your story.

Introduce the setting and/or world

In addition to your character, readers need to know where exactly this story is taking place. Similar to when you introduce your character, you don’t want to give your readers too much too fast. This is especially a concern if you’re setting your story in a completely different world.

There are a handful of ways you can introduce your setting/world successfully, but here are my two biggest tips:

Limit the information you share

Like with your character introduction, consider limiting the information you share about your setting to only what your readers NEED to know to get into your story. This is particularly relevant if you need to introduce a whole new world to your audience. New characters and a completely new world can be a lot for the reader to take in. Limiting information can help your reader ease into your world, while quickly engaging with your story.

For example, if you’re writing a fantasy, you may have magic in your book. It might be important to introduce that magic up front, so by all means, include it in your opening scene. However, the details behind how the magic works and who gets to use it can be discussed later.

Start up close, then widen the lens

This technique is another great way to ease your readers into your setting, regardless of if your story is set on this world or another. When you first introduce your character, only introduce their immediate surroundings at first. So, if your character is at work, just tell us about their work setting. If they’re at home, tell us about their home.

Then as the scene or chapter moves on, widen the lens and tell us where their work or home is located. If there’s something unique about the location you want to mention, go for it! Otherwise, consider leaving the inner-workings of the setting and world until your readers need the information.

Introduce “normal”

Now that you’ve introduced who your main character is, and where the story is set, it’s time to focus on “normal.” What’s normal for your character is going to be relative. For example, if your main character is an assassin, their normal is likely going to be killing someone. This may not be what most, if not all, of your readers consider to be “normal,” but it’s what’s normal to your character.

Why “normal” needs to come first

One piece of writing advice that I come across a lot with regard to beginnings is to start your story “in the middle of the action.” However, that doesn’t mean you should catapult into your story’s inciting incident right out of the gate. While this approach will definitely get you into the story quickly, it’s also likely to confuse your reader. Taking the time to introduce your character, world, and your character’s normal will allow your reader to orient themselves. It also allows readers to see the life your character is used to, and who they are at the start of the book. This will provide a solid basis of how the inciting incident (which we’ll cover in the next post) disrupts their normal, and how the events to come will push your character to grow and change.

How to keep it interesting

Just because the focus of the beginning of the book is an introduction doesn’t mean it should be boring. One of the best ways to establish “normal” and introduce the important information is to put your character in an uncomfortable or tense situation. If you have a character who has a different sense of normal, like our assassin from earlier, your job might be easier than others. Opening with the character completing a hit would be both tense and attention-getting.

If you don’t have a character with an unusual lifestyle, you can still lean on tension and discomfort to create your opening. One book that does this well is The Hunger Games. This book may be dystopian, but the characters themselves are average people. The book opens on the day of the “reaping,” which is when people are chosen to participate in the hunger games. The reaping may not be a daily event, but it’s a normal annual event for the people in this book. It’s also an event that leads to a heightened emotional state for the characters.

You can use any kind of emotionally hightened “normal” situation to pull your readers in.

I hope this helps you with the beginning of your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What are some of your favorite ways to introduce readers to your story at the beginning? Tell me about it in the comments!

Pin it up!