Monday, May 11, 2015

How Should A Book Start? (And an Ellie Sweet giveaway!)

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This is the second installment of a new series, Writing a Novel from Beginning to End. You can read the first installment, How do you know if your story idea is The Idea?, here.)

So, you've had an idea. You're pretty sure it's a good idea, maybe even the best idea you've ever had. As I said last Monday, one of the ways I figure out if I really want to write a book is by diving into chapter one. But how do you know where to start the thing?



If you're hoping for a concrete answer, I don't have one, honestly. The beginning of the story, for me, is a gut thing. I usually won't start writing until I know what I want my opening sceneand even my opening sentenceto be. I don't often deviate from my original choice either.

Other writers are different, though. Many writers tend to write their way to the opening scene. By which I mean they may write a chapter or two before hitting the right place to open. If that's you, don't be discouraged. We all work differently.

While I don't think there's one right way to start a book, I do believe there are several traits of strong opening scenes. When I'm working through the opening of my story, I try to incorporate these five things:

Open with the main character.

This isn't a hard and fast rule but rather a personal preference. Maybe it's because I'm a character-first author, and I tend to write in first person, but I like the readers' first experience with the story to be with the character who will play the largest part. 

Open with the character's status quo.

For a reader to understand the journey our main character is about to go on, it's helpful to see what their life is like already. Before I can encourage Rapunzel to go running off with an outlaw, I need to see just how desperate it is up in that tower. To support Katniss's quest against the capital, I need to experience the misery of District 12. 

What about a quieter book where we aren't fighting to a literal death or running away from evil fake mothers? In Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, chapter one drops us into a bus scene. Park is wishing he'd brought louder music so he didn't have to put up with the inane chatter of his classmates on the bus. He's feeling desperate for his sixteenth birthday to come so he can escape these people. We have only a page or two of thisthat's all we need to see the mundane rhythm of Park's lifebefore Eleanor gets us the bus for the first time.

Sometimes you don't even need the page or two that Rainbow Rowell supplied in Eleanor and Park. In some storiesI did this in Me, Just Differentyou can instead drop us in immediately after the change has been set in motion.  (You can read chapter one of Me, Just Different here if you want to see what I mean.)

Hint at why the journey is necessary

The way to make your story believable to an audience is to make your character's motivations clear. Why are they doing what they're doing? In Frozen, we can forgive Anna's impulsive engagement to Hans because we've listened to her sing "For the First Time In Forever" and "Love is an Open Door." We see that Anna is desperate for a connection with someone.

The opening scene of your story should at least hint at why your character will have to do what they do. In The Hunger Games, we see right away that Katniss is the provider for her family and that she deeply loves her mother and sister. She's already sacrificed a lot so that Prim won't have to put her name in extra times for the reaping. But still Prim's name is called. And because of the masterful opening of this book, we know Katniss will volunteer, and we know why.

In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, the book opens with Ellie being humiliated. I picked this opening
because I wanted to reveal something about Ellie and her friendships. These are friends she's outgrown. People she's friends with out of habit and routine rather than a true bond. She feels like to survive high school, she just needs to put a brave face and turn inward.

Pick something thathowever subtlychanges the trajectory of the character.

Continuing with the example of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, this moment is a starting place of sorts. Ellie is minding her own business, waiting for her math class to start, when Chase, a boy she doesn't know at all, announces to everybody that Ellie has a crush on the new boy at school. 

Despite Chase putting about two seconds of thought into his actions, this is a moment that changes everything for these characters even if they don't realize it.

We often hear to "open with action" which I think is fine advice. Certainly it's better than opening with long-winded descriptions of the main character's wardrobe or paragraphs of back story. But I find it more interesting to start with change.

Get us as close to "the journey" as you can.

In The Hunger Games, Primrose's name is drawn at the end of chapter one. Katniss is on a train out of District 12 in chapter three.

Certainly Suzanne Collins could have chosen to start us back a bit further. Maybe she could have included an awkward scene between Katniss and Peeta at school so we would already understand the tension between them when his name is called. But it certainly wasn't necessary. She gave us all we needed.

Likewise, I suggest the same to you. When does your character start on their journey, the one that will change them? Try to drop us in as close to that as you can.

And don't be afraid to use trial and error for your first scene. Sometimes the only way we know if an opening will work is to write the darn thing!

What's your favorite opening scene in a novel? Why do you think you like it so much?



Because I talked about Ellie in the post, and because the books have gorgeous new covers, I'm going to give away a paperback copy of your choice of the Ellie Sweet books! (For U.S. residents only due to the unfortunate realities of pricey international shipping. Though, if you live outside the states and would be happy with an ebook version, you're welcome to enter.)


a Rafflecopter giveaway

80 comments:

  1. This is great advice, Mrs. Morrill! And the new Ellie Sweet covers are lovely. :)

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  2. My favorite opening scene is Escape from Auschwitz, and I think that is because it started out with suspense and what the character was all about - immediately I was thrust full force into the story.

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    1. Which is SO effective. Thanks for the recommendation, Kara Lynn.

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  3. My favorite opening scene is the one in The Hobbit. It introduces me to the world and characters in a marvellously beautiful way. As a matter of fact, I debated the opening scene of my novel, The Assassin's Mercy, quite a lot, before finally settling on something. Plopping Dorlin, my MC, right where he was most comfortable, on a mission, right when he's about to assassinate his target. But there's a twist-a creature of death, a Nair, one of the monsters that was there when his parents were killed in an arson-is threatening to make this his last mission. It was fun watching Dorlin's internal struggle, and watching him doing what was needed to be done. I'm evil that way.

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    1. I also like the way The Hobbit opens, even though I usually advise against description like that. But it works very well for that story.

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  4. I love these tips!

    My two favorite openings are actually very similar, but I didn't realize it until this comment prompt!

    In John Green's Paper Towns and Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, the authors pull a page from later in the book and place it before Chapter 1. In each book, we see the leading male character experiencing an extreme emotion that we don't technically see until later in the story. That glimpse into the character hooked me and kept me interested while each author provided a small amount of backstory in Chapter 1 because I had seen a glimpse of where the character was going.

    Thanks for making me think!

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    1. Karly, I've seen that technique work really well (like in the books you mentioned) and also not so great. Makes me cautious about attempting it myself because I'm not sure I could pull it off :)

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  5. My favorite opening . . . hard to pick, but one of them is the opening of Howl's Moving Castle. It effectively shows me what the world's like (quirky not-quite-fairytale) and what the characters are like, while catching my attention.

    In my own stories, I tend to struggle a lot with openings . . . if there's a scene I'm going to totally rewrite in the first round of editing, it's probably near the beginning. There are a few that I think I've done pretty well with, though.

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    1. I'm really intrigued by that title! I haven't read that book yet.

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  6. I loved the plot of the Ellie Sweet books. :)

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  7. This is just what I needed to read today! I'm going through the first round of edits for my novel and was having trouble with the beginning. :P
    My favorite beginning scene would have to be from Waking Rose. While a lot of books I read start out slow and take a lot of endurance to get through, I like to read the beginning of that book over and over.

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    1. I haven't read that yet, Katy! I love when I find books that I can enjoy over and over.

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  8. One of my favorite openings is from Anomaly, by Krista McGee. It grabbed me from the very first sentence-- the main character saying she has 15 1/2 minutes to live?! I was hooked. Although without it I think the book would have been intriguing and exciting at every turn anyway, that prologue, which was a chapter from almost the very end of the book, helps drive the reader's interest even more. Good stuff. ;)

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    1. That's an excellent way to start a novel with a bang!

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  9. I have a habit of using the status quo opening of my own writing, but I must say that I love the ones that hint at a necessary journey. Or the ones that get as close to the journey as possible. Just knowing that the action is coming and the suspense in waiting for it is amazing!

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  10. One of my favorite book beginnings is the one in To Kill A Mocking Bird. The author tells how the book is going to end and then connects it to that point. Great post:) And I love the Ellie Sweet books!

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  11. My favorite is the opening to The Hobbit! :D

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  12. I love the openings of Cameron Dokey's books in the Once Upon a Time series. She weaves them with such great symbolism and eloquence.

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  13. My favorite opening scene of a novel is A Wrinkle in Time, when Meg, Charles Wallace, and their mother are drinking hot chocolate and suddenly, Mrs. Whatsit shows up. I love the coziness of that scene and then the humor Mrs. Whatsit adds when she shows up.

    ~Katie Nichols

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    1. (I changed my internet alias. Katie Nichols=Robyn Hoode. And this site isn't letting me comment with my WordPress blog account. Sorry for any confusion.)

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    2. Thank you! I would have wondered where you went :)

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  14. Gah, there's so many. The first that comes to mind at the moment is the opening of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. It shows so much about the story within the first few paragraphs - and I'm fond of the opening line as well. :3

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  15. That is a hard question! I love all the openings to the Narnia books. Also, I think the Hobbit has a clever opening... The book I'm reading right now, The Choosing has a pretty amazing opening that starts at a change. I like how it drops you in instead of taking a long time on the back story ahead of time.

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    1. I almost always prefer that too, Bethany.

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  16. I always start my books (actually, each chapter) with what the character is thinking or feeling. Great post, this was super helpful!

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  17. Oh there are so many good ones! I'd say my favorite opening line is from Scaramouche, "He was born with a gift of laughter, and the sense that the world was mad."
    I was instantly hooked!!


    Thank you for this post and the giveaway ❤️

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    1. That's a very clever opening line, Sierra!

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  18. I enjoy writing the start of the book the best. I usually drop the reader into the middle of a conversation and for me, the first chapter flows out easily It's the next few chapters that get sticky :)

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  19. I love the opening scenes of a novel because there so interesting and all of them are different. And I enjoy writing the beginnings of a book, I would say the ending but I haven't gotten there yet... :3

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  20. I can't think of a "favorite" opening scene... I did like DragonSpell by Donita K Paul! Instead of placing us right into Kale's slavery she started it at an eciting part, but talks about her slavery after!

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    1. That's a smart choice. That's how you know Donita is a pro :)

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  21. I always liked the way The Hobbit opened. :)

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    1. Several have mentioned The Hobbit! I agree. It's very fitting to the rest of the story.

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  22. i love how the percy jackson series starts: funny with a hint that something has gone wrong. again. It sets it up for an interesting story where you get to discover alongside Percy, and get to laugh too. Perfect for the YA genre. :)

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  23. I have very few favorites and openings aren't on the list, but I will say I love openings that (1) immediately give me a reason to root for the character, (2) are clear (especially about things like whether the narrator is a boy or a girl, their approximate age, etc.), and (3) show me something unique about the story. :)

    Also, I have a question about the "start as close to the journey as possible" point. Is "starting the journey" the choice point in the three act structure, or the climax of act one? I always confuse the two, it seems, and the choice is a lot earlier than the climax of act one...

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    1. That's a wonderful question, Amanda. I'll be sure to cover that in an upcoming post, okay?

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  24. I tend to gravitate toward books that start with descriptions, perhaps because I'm so terrible at them myself. Grounding a reader in space and time is important (I hate grey space!), but learning to do so in a succinct and talented fashion is yet beyond me.

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    1. I think it takes a lot of talent to pull off a description style of opening. I always marvel when I find one that works.

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  25. Ok so first let me just say that I LOVE the new Ellie Sweet covers! I need them on my shelf :). It's really hard to choose an opening scene that I love. I love the way Rick Riordan does his openings. They are intriguing and sometimes humorous. I also really like the way John Flanagan opens his books specifically the first and last one. I love it when opening are intriguing, full of action, and slightly humorous or ironic.

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    1. Thank you, Lauren! I think they turned out really nice.

      I haven't read anything by John Flanagan. I also tend to like openings that have humor.

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  26. I love when books open with a quote and the character doesn't agree with the saying. Also bits of heated dialog I find really hooking. Thanks for this post!

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  27. I like the Nancy Drew book opening scenes in all of them :)

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    1. I haven't read Nancy Drew in such a long time. I'll pull a few off my shelf :)

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  28. Thanks for the great advice! The examples made it really easy to understand!

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  29. My favorite opening scene is the prologue for Jeff Wheeler's Fireblood. He starts In Media Re with the main characters failure to finish the quest he embarked on.

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  30. My favorite opening is either from Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl or Shadowhand by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.
    Dragonwitch: "Have you ever watched an immortal die?"
    Shadowhand: "They say all the old stories--all the true stories--are about blood. This is simply now so."
    Those lines are just so thought-provoking and sooo amazing.
    In my stories, I don't actually have that much trouble with openings. My trouble in usually in the middle.

    -Ryebrynn

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    1. Yes, middles are their own beast... I'm similar. I frolic through the opening and then come to a screeching halt once I hit the middle.

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  31. I don't mean to be a copy cat, but I have to agree with Jonathan Fay. The opening of the Hobbit just seems so natural. It sets you comfortably into the Shire, you meet your main character, view the surroundings, and get a touch of Bilbo's home life. :) Definitely my favorite.

    Love the post! :) Very helpful as always.

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  32. I really like the opening scene in Nancy Rue's book "Lucy Doesn't Wear Pink". The main character (Lucy) writes the title "Reasons Why I Hate Aunt Karen" in her journal, then stops and thinks about the wording. Her dad tells her that the word "hate" is a thing-verb, not a people-verb - it isn't okay to hate human beings. So she scribbles out that title and writes instead: "Reasons Why I Wish Aunt Karen Would Move to Australia".

    I really like this opening because it portrays three characters really well straight away. Lucy's dad is wise, her aunt is annoying, and Lucy herself is a writer who listens to her dad while still getting away with whatever she can. :)

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    1. Nancy Rue is excellent at characterization. Great example.

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  33. Cool post! Honestly, I'm not sure what my favorite beginning is, though The Silver Sea by Julia Golding has a great one: within the first few chapters, it introduces the reader to the 3 main characters, their normal lives, and their immediate relationships. It gives a really good feel of who the characters are.
    Also Spring by Mark Crilley. Technically, it's a manga, but the opening is cool because it begins at the end.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. I love when authors do something clever like that. I've yet to have an idea where I could actually pull that off, but I love seeing it done well.

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  34. I loved the philosophers stone opening because it was a dull prologue about a dull man and yet JK Rowling wrote it so wonderfully that I couldn't put it down. I knew from there that if she could make me want to read about the most boring man in the world then I would love when she wrote about adventures and battles.

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    1. Megan, I wondered if anyone was going to bring up Harry Potter :) There's a lot of debate about that prologue among writers. Many think it's dull and an ineffective way to start a middle grade book. But you can't argue with sales, really. I agree with you, that Rowling's voice and the way she is poking fun of Mr. Dursley, makes for an enchanting opening.

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  35. My favorite opening scene . . . hmm I've read so many books I don't know if I could ever possibly choose just one!

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  36. One of my favorite opening scenes is from The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth...it pulls you RIGHT in to the story, and gives you such a fantastic picture of one of the main characters and the essence of his story...

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  37. I can't think of my favorite opening scene! Tons of favorite books, characters, and storyworlds come to mind, but not an opening scene. Maybe that's what makes a book great--when the world and characters remain in your memory so vividly, like memories of real people and places, that you don't even recall the author's involvement. :-)

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  38. Good tips, Stephanie! These are really helpful! Beginnings are tough. I've changed mine in my books several times.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  39. Oooh. Hard question. Probably the opening scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Not to spoil it for anyone, but there's so much that goes unsaid between the Death Eaters... :P *fangirls* Everyone has such gripping motives, objectives and secrets. It really makes the characters pop.

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    1. Oh, yes, that is an amazing opening! I'd forgotten about that one in my comment.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  40. Thanks for the post! Just starting on my newest novel (if I manage to finish this one, it'll be my fifth completed), and I was really needing some tips on the opening. :D
    My mind is going completely blank on other openings, however. Having difficulty coming up with one... XD
    (Those new covers are GORGEOUS, by the way.)

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  41. So much good info here! Love it, Steph!

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  42. Thank you for the tips! I have a really hard time starting writing, and this helped a lot! I love the book covers. My mother and I are keeping an eye out for them. Know where we can get 'em?

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    1. Thanks, Annabel! Currently they're only available on Amazon.com. Thanks for asking!

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