Within a few pages. Hopefully within the first sentence. James Hall, a best-selling writer, said that he spends an inordinate amount of time going over his opening once the manuscript is done, refining it, making it the best it can be.
Some writers spend too much of the beginning giving background information setting up a hook. You don't have that luxury. I recommend going to the bookstore and simply taking books off the shelf and reading the opening paragraph, the opening line. You'll start seeing a common thread, where the authors try to evoke a mood, an emotion very quickly to get you interested in the story.
If you have to use a flashback or memory in your opening chapter, seriously consider moving the Start line back so that the flashback or memory happens in real time.
Remember I mentioned that a book's impact is emotional and intellectual. I think you have to do your best to engage a reader's intellect and his emotions as quickly as you can.
The shaded box before the start point is what I want to discuss right now. This is known as your expository information, or more simply, the background or the backstory. There is always a history prior to the start point of the novel—a history of the characters, the locale, the environment, the crisis to be faced—the list goes on and on. Depending on the type novel you are writing, this box can be very small, or very large. For example, a science fiction writer, setting a story in the 24th century, has a very big box that he/she has to understand and develop before he can even begin to write the START.
Beyond that, though, is the fact that you can see that the start of the arrow of the original idea—and many of the subplots—begins prior to the start point of the novel. This means to you, the writer, two things. First, you must know all the information in this box prior to beginning your writing. You must know about your characters; your locales; all the background information necessary to make a believable story. Failing to do this essential background work sabotages the story before you type your first word and becomes very apparent to readers as they progress in your work.
If you have invented a fantasy world of magic, you must have a basic working idea of the rules of magic in your fantasy world. That isn't to say that you can't adjust and change it once you get into the writing, but you have to start somewhere.
Secondly, it means there is usually vital information the reader must eventually have about events and things that existed/ occurred prior to the book start point in order to comprehend what he or she is reading. How you relay this information to the reader is extremely important. Naturally, it must be worked in smoothly. Work in the background information the reader needs in glimpses, when it's required to understand the present story. In most cases, try not to use whole chapters to do this as it usually sabotages your story by slowing it down too much. A common mistake is to write an excellent opening chapter presenting the crisis or hook, and then have three chapters of 'necessary' background material presented to fill in all that the reader needs to know. Once you initiate action, you have to keep it going.
Move your action and slip in background when needed and when it answers questions the reader will have. Give the reader background information when the normal reader would get to a certain part of your narrative and start picking up his hand to scratch his head because he needs to know something he doesn't. Give him the information before the hand reaches the head.
Try to use dialogue or authorial narrative to present that information; this is preferred over simply having characters thinking and remembering. You can also use flashbacks but use them correctly. You must have a good lead into the flashback and a smooth lead out, back into the action of the narrative. Flashbacks work when you do that, and when you put them at that point where the reader is interested in finding out the background information you are going to present.
Also, remember there is a difference between a flashback and a memory. A memory has the additional factor of a character's viewpoint on a past event. This gives the event more relevance to the current story.
You must not only slide into and out of flashbacks smoothly in the storyline, but you must also do it smoothly style-wise. The first and last paragraphs of the flashback should move out of and back into the last and first paragraphs on either side of the flashback. For example, you can be writing about a man sitting at his desk at work, getting ready to make a life-changing phone call. You move into a flashback giving necessary information as to why the phone call has to be made by starting the flashback with another phone-call in the past. Then you can move back to the present with the phone in the present ringing, bringing both character and reader back to the present. A simple and obvious ploy, but better than just plunking down the flashback in the middle of your chapter.
I once saw a very interesting movie where the story began at the end and progressed back in time. The writer presented the resolution of a crisis and then proceeded to show how that resolution came about and what started the crisis in the first place. My point, though, is: did the writer originally write it that way, or did the writer script it in normal time sequence and then reverse the whole story? This has a direct application to my point that you can always go back and adjust the start point. In my diagram, it is a sliding line, that can move along the arrow of the original idea, but most of the time you can't decide the correct place to put it until you have drawn out that original idea to its conclusion. In this particular instance the writer reversed the flow of the story line.
There is another aspect to consider when deciding where to start your novel and that is the timeline of your story. This greatly affects your writing and style.
There are many ways to arrange the timeline of the story but the most important thing to remember is to keep the reader clued in. It is extremely confusing to the reader if their time-sense of the story gets screwed up.
I used "headers" before each new scene in some of my manuscripts. These give the time and location of the upcoming scene. While that is an easy way to keep the reader oriented, I have to remember that not all readers (including myself.) read such headers. More on this in the next chapter.
Almost invariably, you are going to have to move back in time to give expository information in a story. I've already discussed this, but make sure your reader knows what you are doing.
Let me give you an example of timeline problems: I just recently looked at a manuscript telling the story of two brothers caught up in the Civil War. He had to pick a start point and then move his story from there. At first he picked Appomattox. The problem was that he was constantly going back to battles during the war, such as 1st and 2d Bull Run, Antietam, etc. etc. The shift in style required to do this was very jarring to the reader.
He then rewrote the story starting at 2d Bull Run. The only problem he now had though, was in style. Once you "freeze" your time frame for the story with a start point, you must make sure your tenses indicate to the reader whether they are in the normal time frame of the story or moving back, prior to the start point, or even moving around in the normal sequence. The reader assumes that you are going to progress in a sequential fashion. You don't necessarily have to, but you must remember to take the reader along with you when you do make your shifts. There are numerous ways to do this (a good reason to read a lot and study others' styles)—just do it correctly.
Another problem this writer had was by starting at Appomattox, he lost all his suspense during his chapters that went back into the war because we knew who was alive at the end of the war, Appomattox, also the beginning of the book.
Some writers start their books with a prologue, others with Chapter 1. What is the difference? A prologue is used when whatever is in the opening chapter is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.
In the next two chapters I am going to discuss pacing and the ending of a book. I think it is important to consider 'bookends' to your story—a time framework in which to put your storyline.
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