Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Many readers at The Editor’s Blog are writers who’ve been writing a while, who have no problem whatsoever with generating story ideas or starting their next novels. They may have questions about the best way to introduce characters or want to learn more about dialogue or the other elements of fiction, might even be looking for pointers on grammar and punctuation, but they typically don’t have too much trouble getting started.
Yet not all writers, especially beginning writers, know where to start a new project. They don’t know whether or not there is one best starting place as they approach writing a novel. The good news is that you can start anywhere. If you’ve got a great character, a cool climactic moment, a killer section of dialogue, an alluring what-if—if you’ve got something that tempts you, that grabs your attention, you’ve got a place to begin. You could start with any one of these kernels.
Yet I’m going to suggest that before you put hands to keyboard or pen to paper, you first consider three key fiction components. It’s not that you can’t change these particular three elements once you’ve started, if you find they don’t work as they should. It’s simply that they’re such an integral part of both story and the writing process that you could very well be wasting a lot of time should you begin without a proper examination of these three foundational elements.
Because they’re essential for every part of every story, because they touch and support every part of a story, changing any one of these three could be a massive hassle you could avoid if you simply give them solid thought and consideration ahead of time.
The three story components are point of view, narrative tense, and genre. I’ve covered all three topics before, but not in this context. We’re not going to look at what they are but at how they affect story. How they affect the writer’s approach to starting a story.
A Quick Review
Point of view allows us to vary the way a story is told. It allows us to choose a narrator—a character who narrates his or her own story (first person), an omniscient narrator who knows everything about the story world and its characters (using third person language to do so), or an invisible and unnoticed narrator who is never revealed but who allows the viewpoint characters to direct the story (third person). One point of view may allow readers to get up close and personal with characters and story events while another permits readers to look on only from a distance. Others allow amounts of narrative distance somewhere between the extremes.
This is a very simple take on point of view, laid out in a different way than I’ve explained it before, but you can get the fine details by following the link to the in-depth articles.
Narrative tense has to do with the when of story events. Stories are typically told in either past or present tense, although variety is possible within a single story.
Genre is the type or category of story, a type recognized by readers as well as the marketplace. Genres include sci-fi, romance, mystery, and so forth. The literary novel is sometimes listed as a genre, other times considered something outside the other traditional genres.
When you’re ready to begin a novel, or when you want to begin and yet don’t know where to start, consider these three components before you look at other story elements. The choices you make for these will greatly affect your writing, the way you approach the other story elements, as well as the product you turn out.
For example, genre touches every story element and should be considered as you create characters, write dialogue, add description, design conflict between protagonist and antagonist, and even when you choose individual words. Some genres require certain components while other genres wouldn’t welcome them. Words might fit one genre and not another. If you don’t know the story’s genre, you’re going to find yourself doing a lot of unnecessary rewriting.
If you spend time on these three basics before you begin writing, you may not only save yourself time and headaches later, but you may find your story easier to write.
I’m sure some of you are thinking that writers as a matter of course decide on these three elements before they begin writing. But I can tell you that some writers don’t, that they don’t necessarily consciously think about them when they start in on that first chapter or that one scene that gets them started. But deliberately choosing POV and narrative tense and intentionally taking into consideration genre requirements, strengths, and limitations will help you get started in the right place. And not only that, the knowledge will help you enter your story world that much faster. It’ll help you introduce readers to that world quicker as well.
If your plot starts on page one, with events happening, mood swirling, setting taking shape, and conflict at least hinted at, readers will feel a part of that story right off. If you don’t know what the genre is and you choose the wrong POV, not discovering the genre and best POV until 200 pages later, the story and readers will suffer for the shortcomings.
Not every writer thinks about the components of genre, of what makes one genre different from another, when it’s time to start a new book. But writers who actively think about genre remind themselves how genre requirements and peculiarities affect other story elements. And they’re primed to include those peculiarities when they start writing.
So a murder mystery needs to open with a murder, end with the revelation of the murderer (in a whodunit), and focus on the detective (amateur or pro) trying to discover the murderer.
In a suspense novel. suspense and danger need to be introduced right away and the writer must keep that feeling of danger running through every scene, like an electric current, sometimes ramping it up, sometimes cutting back, but always including the sense of menace.
For sci-fi or paranormals that include new worlds, the setting needs to be emphasized, needs to be incorporated into every scene and woven through the other story elements.
Even word choice is dependent upon genre. Some words simply don’t work with one genre, even if they’re perfect for another one. But if you don’t know your story’s genre and you start writing, you may end up with a mishmash that fits no genre.
If you don’t know that you’re writing suspense and simply start writing, you’ll fail to include strong indicators of suspense novels and your story will be lacking in a way readers will notice.
The point is, you should know genre before you start. You can say you want to wait until the story is done before deciding what genre it is (and yes, some writers try this method), but you’ll have lost the opportunity to fold in genre characteristics as you write. You can always make changes in a rewrite, including beefing up genre stylings, but you’ll include many more of them, from word level to overall sweep of the story, if you choose your genre and pay attention to it as you create.
As for narrative tense and POV, you can also change those after you’ve written your first draft. Doing so is a bit difficult and time consuming, but not impossible. But again, making a deliberate choice—based on the characters, plot, genre, and story needs—before you begin will allow you to get a sense of the story, will allow you to feel and hear the story, as you write. If you have to make a major change that affects every single line of text—which is what you’d have to do to change narrative tense or POV—you run the risk of missing something, maybe a lot of somethings, and not producing a cohesive and consistent story. Starting out on the right path makes a whole lot more sense than retracing that path and starting over, trying to fit what you’ve already written with a new narrative tense or POV or genre.
Present-tense stories have a different feel from past-tense ones. So a change from one to the other may mean changing not only verb tenses, but verb choices as well. Maybe whole action sequences too.
You might need to change the emphasis in dialogue, add scenes or cut them.
Of these three writing areas, narrative tense would be easiest to change. But even changes with it would require more than just verb changes. Why not spend time considering options before you begin rather than being forced to fix problems after you’ve got the first draft completed.
Or try this: before you start with chapter one, intent to just get going, write a single scene using present tense and then write it using past tense; write a scene with one POV and then try another; write a scene multiple times, featuring details and considerations of different genres each time. And only then determine which are the best choices for the story.
If you already know which tense and POV works for the type of story you’re writing, you wouldn’t need to do something such as this. But if you’re unsure, invest the time upfront rather than having to spend ten times as many hours applying fixes later.
When you don’t know where to start, start with these three story factors; decide on the basics before you get too far into the writing. Not only will doing so save you time on the back end, but you’ll also create a stronger story, one with a lot of unifying elements.
Beyond these basics, if you’re having trouble finding a place to actually begin writing, try one of the following starting places. Start with an anticipated scene that moves you, that excites you. But if you want to save a favorite scene for the end (I love writing the climax when I get to it in the story, not before), then begin with a second-favorite scene.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to start at the beginning of the story when you sit down to write. Anything that has you rarin’ to go can work. Think about establishing an emotion or mood. Think about writing an action scene. What about a love scene? How about your lead character’s darkest moment?
Start anywhere that’ll get you excited about writing and have you feeling the story. Start with a scene or moment that’s not only important to the characters, but important to you. There’s no reason you can’t have a good time when you write.
Opening image or scene
Meet between hero and heroine or protagonist and antagonist
The lead character’s first setback (or victory)
The antagonist’s first setback (or victory)
An emotional scene between the main character and her soon-to-be ex-husband
The main character’s crisis, when he decides whether he quits or goes on
An action scene
A physical battle scene
A fight via dialogue
The scene when protagonist or antagonist realizes something she’d never understood before
Think of a scene that will instantly put you in a character’s head or heart and have at it. Write the scene of the story, the one you’ve been noodling around in your thoughts since you first thought of it. Write that emotional clash between characters that you can see and almost hear when you close your eyes. Write whatever will get you going.
Don’t worry about trying to make the first words perfect; you’re going to change them later no matter how awesome they are. Just get the groove started and then work yourself into it. Sometimes just writing those first words is enough to prime the pump, and then all sorts of ideas will come rushing up out of you. After they do, you can decide where you’ll focus next.
This technique works for both pantsers and plotters; you’ve got to get something down. If you’re a plotter and you get stuck at the beginning of your plotting, try to write one of these scenes. Doing so should give you all sorts of ideas for what you’ll need to include and the direction the story should take. Once your ideas are flowing, head back to your outline.
What’s important is finding a workable starting place and then starting. But before you begin stringing words together, start with some deliberation over narrative tense, POV, and genre. Give yourself and your story every advantage; be deliberate in your choice of tense and POV. And don’t overlook the advantages of tying every element to genre. If you know the genre upfront, you can write to genre.
The same is true for setting. Decide on the setting and then make use of it for both story events and characters. Or think about your characters and their lives first and then choose a setting to match and make sure that setting influences events and characters.
Start anywhere, but know what you need to know before writing word one. Give your readers a well thought out story that’s internally consistent. Use every component of fiction to tighten your writing, to make it whole rather than fractured.
Write us some entertaining fiction and have a good time while you’re at it. Save yourself extra headaches—there are enough involved with taming a 90,000-word behemoth without introducing more by not being prepared when you begin.
The rest of us want to read your novels. Get started, in a productive way, so you can finish soon and so we can enjoy your stories.