Do any of these describe you?
- You’re a plotter, and you’re starting to figure out the structure of your novel.
- You’re a plotter, and now that you’ve worked out all the ins and outs of your story structure, you’re ready to begin the book.
- You’re a pants-ster, you’ve got an awesome idea, and you’re ready to charge into writing.
- Plotter or pants-ter, you’ve finished draft 1 of your book and you’re ready to give it an overhaul.
This post is for those of you are ready to tackle your book project, beginning at the beginning.
And man, that beginning can be a toughie. Richard Peck writes his entire novel, then tosses out the first chapter (without reading it) and writes it again. Jerry Spinelli, award-winning author of Stargirl, says he tosses the whole BOOK out after finishing draft one. It’s not until he finishes that first draft that he feels that he really knows what the story is about.
Why am I thinking of these things? Because I’m revisiting last year’s NaNoWriMo novel—the one that didn’t quite happen—and I think I understand why the words refused to flow. I didn’t know the answer to these questions. This week, I’m busy answering them—and I hope you find them useful, too!
Questions to Ask When Beginning Your Book
- Who is your audience? Why will they read—and keep reading—this book? Before you type those first words, it can be helpful to paint a mental picture of your ideal reader. What will he or she look for in a book? What will they love about your story? Keep your answers in mind as you write.
- Who is the heart of the story? You need to bring them to life in a few swift brush strokes. You need to show off their strengths enough that a reader will be willing to stick with the character through a few hundred pages. A few years back, I attended Donald Mass’s Writing the Breakout Novel workshop, where he recommended allowing your character to be heroic in some small way in the first chapter. In the opening pages, what will “wow” your reader?
- What is your main character’s flaw or weakness? Just as you want to hint at your main character’s strengths in the opening pages, you also want to pave the way for his weaknesses. Make sure the opening scene gives you some way to , and how can you reveal it in the opening pages?
- What does your main character need or desire? Think about how you can show what your main character needs or wants in the opening pages, which will hint at the conflict to come.
- How can you show the elements most important to plot and character, rather than just telling the reader?Telling is a speedy way to get information to your reader, but showing can capture a reader’s emotions. For example:
- “Sally longed for her mother to return” (telling) provides information.
- “Sally studied faces in the crowd, searching for her mother. She didn’t realize she was biting her lip until she tasted blood.” (showing) helps the reader to feel Sally’s anxiety as well as providing the information that she wants her mother to return.
- What is the “ordinary world” of your main character’s Hero’s Journey, the status quo that changes as the story begins? In order for readers to understand the changes that your character faces, they need to understand her starting point.
- What is the “inciting incident” in your main character’s Hero’s Journey—the event that sets your character on a new path? Without this incident, you have no story. This is what starts the story rolling, and it’s generally a good idea to have it show up in the opening chapter.
- What background information is absolutely essential to know in the opening paragraphs and pages? What information does NOT need to be revealed until later in the story? Sometimes backstory absolutely must make an appearance in the opening pages—but not nearly as often as we writers like to think. Pare background information down to the bare minimum so you can pull readers more quickly into the story action.
- Where is the story going? Fellow critique group member (and amazing writer) Julie Peters says she writes her book’s ending before writing the rest of the book. She’s not an avid outliner—but by having a clear destination in mind, she can make sure that her story stays on track.
- How are you going to surprise your reader? Plot twists and reversals keep readers reading, while predictable sequences of events can be the death of a story. Even if you don’t map out every plot point before beginning to write, start thinking about how you will upend readers’ expectations.
- What promise does your story make to your readers, and how will you keep that promise? Thanks for adding this to the list, Alexa. Even in the opening scene, the author is presenting a particular story type to the reader, and each story type has an implied promise. What will your reader expect from your opening? Although you want to keep some surprises up your sleeve, you also want to remain true to the promises unfurled in the opening.
Thanks to Sarah for some more great questions to ask:
- Who stands in the main character’s way, and how does he or she prevent the hero from achieving her desire? (the antagonist)
- What does the character stand to lose if she fails to achieve her desire? What does she stand to gain if she succeeds? (stakes)
- What’s the worst that could happen? (this usually turns into a fun free write, because there are lots of ways to go from here!)
Anything to add to the list? What questions help you get a clear enough picture of your characters, plot, and world to start writing?