Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 14: Where To Start

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

First of all...

Happy May the 4th Be with You day, everyone!

Now that we started things off properly, welcome back to #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. We are on week 14 already. I can't believe how fast things are going. I hope you're all doing well with your stories. Remember, 100 words a day will add up, so don't get discouraged. Just keep writing!

I've been writing my book, THIRST, and posting the chapters on my author website. This past Monday I posted Chapter 12 of THIRST. My heroes are in Colorado now, getting closer to Mount Crested Butte and the future location of The Safe Lands. Click here to read Chapter 12.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.
Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Today's Topic: Where to Start

Where you start your novel is very important. It should hook your reader, put them into the character's mind and situation, set the pace for the story, establish voice, and keep the reader interested. There are many ways to do this, and it's not easy. It takes work to get everything just right.

There are so many ways to start a book that I can't really tell you how. I was going to list some Dos and Don’ts, but even that puts your creativity in a box, and I don't want to do that. Instead, I’m going to list some Good Ideas and some Bad Ideas. Because you know what? There are plenty of bestselling novels out there that would fall into the Bad Idea category, which just goes to show you that rules are made to be broken. So if you want to break a rule, use a cliche idea, or go with a concept from the Bad Ideas list, just make sure and be clever about it. Also, there are likely many more ways to start a novel than what I've listed below. And you can always combine ideas or twist them on their heads. (Many of these good ideas came from my GTW post Ten Ways to Start a Novel.)

Good Ideas

-Start in Medias Res: “Medias res” is Latin for “in the midst of things.” So you could start your story showing your character living through something routine so that the reader sees what’s normal for your character—often, but not always, including what’s wrong or what weakness is holding them back. You may see them lonely. You may see them fighting with their mom. This is a good way to plant a sometime that will get fixed later on in the story. You also might see them expecting one thing and coming upon disaster. Girl comes home from school, says, “Mom! I’m home!” Then finds a note that mom has moved out and left the family. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins starts out showing the reader the world Katniss lives in.

-Zoom In: This is done a lot in movies. Start far away and slowly zoom in to the character, like in this example from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

-Dialogue: Dialogue is a great way to start a book, especially if that dialogue is interesting. Here are two very different examples of starting a book with dialogue:
“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. --Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  
“I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get.” --Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

-In the Middle of Action, Suspense, or Tension: Starting with something mysterious or in the middle of action helps avoid the boring beginning. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini gives us a windy night, a foreboding statement, and a mysterious creature. It makes us want to read more.

Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes. ---Eragon by Christopher Paolini

And Rick Riordan uses the sarcastic voice of Percy Jackson to plop us right into the middle of action.
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car. ---The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

-Surprise or Intrigue the Reader: Using a line that piques the reader's curiosity is a clever way of hooking the reader into the story. Here's one of my favorites from John Otte's Failstate:
Being a superhero was hard enough. Being one on reality television . . . Why had I thought this was a good idea?

-Speak to the Reader: If you're writing in first person or in a diary form, you can speak directly to the reader. Here is an example from Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.
I am not a good person. Oh, I know what the stories say about me. They call me Oculator Dramatus, Hero, Savior of the Twelve Kingdoms. . . . Those, however, are just rumors. Some are exaggerations; many are outright lies. The truth is far less impressive.

-Start with a quote: Many books have quotes at the start of each chapter. And many readers skip them. So keep that in mind. But a quote can do a great job of foreshadow what's to come. It can be a quote from fictional characters or a quote from a real person. Here is an example from Frank Herbert's Dune:
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.” ---from Manual of Muad'Dib by the Princess Irulan

-Give the Facts: This quote from the opening of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo says it far better than I could.
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. This is what happened: I walked into the produce section of the Winn-Dixie grocery store to pick out my two tomatoes and I almost bumped right into the store manager. He was standing there all red-faced, screaming and waving his arms around.

-Make a Statement About Your Plot or Theme: This is a great way to start a story because you are foreshadowing either the plot or the theme of what the book will be about. Take these two examples:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. ---Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. ---Matilda by Roald Dahl

-Foreshadow What Will Change: You could show your character doing or saying something that foreshadows or symbolizes what will change in the book. In Maria V. Snyder's Inside Out, she starts the story with her main character asleep inside a pipe. By the end of the story we will see this character lead a group of people to get out of their captivity.
A vibration rippled through my body. I awoke in semi-darkness, unsure of my location. Reaching out with my hands, I felt smooth sides arching up and in. My fingers touched overhead. Pipe.---Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

And in Melody Carlson's The Jerk Magnet, she starts with a statement that shows her main character as a shy girl, but by the end of the story that will change.

Sometimes the best way to handle rejection is to simply expect it. Just accept that antagonism is coming your way and get beyond it as quickly and quietly as possible. At least that was what Chelsea Martin had been telling herself since hitting adolescence. But with two more years of high school lurking ahead, her resolve, not to mention her patience, had worn thin. And she wondered . . . just how old did her peers have to become before they eventually grew up? Forty-eight, perhaps? Maybe by their thirtieth class reunion they would treat people humanely and with an iota of respect.---The Jerk Magnet by Melody Carlson

-Start with a future scene: This is usually a scene that happens at the climax of your novel. It might be a teaser prologue like in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight or an opening line from the hero like in Andrew Klavan's book Crazy Dangerous.

You see that dead guy by the side of the road? … That's me. Sam Hopkins.

-Start with your main character's point of view and his or her voice: For example:
Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie. ---Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

-Remember your Ws: In Stephanie's post How to Write a Great First Scene, she says: “When you write your opening scene, you can ground your reader by remembering the W's. Who is this story about? What is happening, or what is about to happen? When is this taking place? Where are we? Why are we here?”

Bad Ideas

Now come the bad ideas. Some of these are bad ideas because they are boring. Others are bad ideas because they've been done so much they've become cliche. All of these are things I've heard over and over from frustrated editors and agents at writing conferences. But I want to remind you that just because these things have become cliche or can be boring, doesn't mean you can't use them. But you need to have a clever reason why you're doing it. And it needs to work. If you've had dozens of beta readers complain about your Bad Idea opening, chances are you should make a change.

-Backstory: To summarize what Shannon said in her post on Where to Start, she pointed out that Steven King said: “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” Don't start your story with a bunch of information the reader doesn't want to know. Instead, make your reader desperate to know the backstory the way Shannon did in her novel Angel Eyes. Brielle has gone through something traumatic, but the reader doesn't know what. And Shannon doesn't tell--not for a long time. This is similar to how Shannon pointed out the way Suzanne Collins does with Katniss and Peeta's backstory involving the boy with the bread. Use backstory to tease the reader, not to bore them.

-Normal day: This is similar to medias res. You simply want to show your character in his normal routine. I did this in my novel By Darkness Hid for that very reason. I wanted to show Achan going about his regular day and to show the fantasy world he lived in. Yet I've had some fans tell me it took them a while to get into my book. And that's not good! The problem? Nothing much was happening! Achan walked across the manor and into the barn. He started to milk the goats. He finished milking the goats. Then trouble came. To this day I wonder if I had started in a different place if I would have gripped readers earlier.

-First day: This feels natural to do. You think, I'll start my story with the first day of school or the first day of special training. That way the reader can experience everything my character experiences. But the reader doesn't want to experience everything your character experiences. The reader wants the entertaining bits. Instead of starting at the beginning, start a paragraph before everything goes wrong. That's much more interesting.

-Starting too early: Both the "normal day" and the "first day" suffer from the same problem of starting too early. If your opening doesn't have any tension, you might be doing this. Fast-forward a little to the place where things get interesting. Readers need for something exciting to be going on!

-Too much description: If you are starting your story with a paragraph or twelve of sweeping description, stop! Break that up into pieces and look for a more engaging way to start the book.

-Funerals: It's not the best idea to start your story by depressing your readers. However, Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz started with this line: "When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news." And he went on to talk about the fact that his uncle had died. But he had died mysteriously. And Stormbreaker is a spy novel. So this worked.

-Introductions: Hi, my name is Jill. I live in the Pacific Northwest where it rains a lot. It's May now, and the days are starting to get sunnier, but there are still weeks where I don't see the sun. Which brings me to...

-Weather: Don't start your book by giving a weather report. It's good to show the weather, don't get me wrong. But you've got to do more than that to hook your reader.

-Waking up: Whether your hero is waking up to an alarm clock or his mother yelling that he'll be late for school, WAY TOO MANY books start with waking up. (Too many chapters start that way, as well. I’ve noticed I do it far too often…) Take a little time to come up with something more powerful.

-Traveling: Your character is walking to school, riding a bus, flying on a plane. This is not very interesting. Fast-forward until something interesting is about to happen. The same goes for starting your story with your hero late for work or school. It's been done so much. See if you can find another way to start your story.

-Any POV that is not your hero: (Says the author who just released an epic fantasy novel with nine points of view.) Yeah, this one depends on your genre. And your editor, too, if you have one. The point is--and you've all likely experienced this in novels you've read--you finally connect with the POV character, then a new chapter starts and here is someone else. "No!" you say. "I don't want to read about someone else." And that is why you should at least start out with your hero. That way if you switch to a new point of view, your reader will be eager to get back to your hero, which is good.

-Prologues: (Says the author whose editors are always telling her to add a prologue...) Prologues can be good. I’m going to talk more about them next week. In this instance, I’m talking about prologues that give the history of a world or a huge chunk of backstory, though some editors and agents just hate all prologues. Except for my editors, apparently. ;-)

-Untagged dialogue: This is just confusing. The reader wants to connect, asap, with someone. Reading dialogue from unknown speakers is like watching a movie with no picture. What is going on already? We don’t know. We don’t care.

-False starts: This could mean a dream in which your character wakes up at the end of the chapter and your reader is frustrated because they liked what was going on and now they feel cheated. The could also be an opening chapter or prologue told from a character who dies at the end of that chapter or prologue. It's dangerous to hook your reader and then take it away. Be nice! Or your reader might abandon your book.

-Group activities: Does your story start out in a scene with multiple characters present? If so, that might give your reader way too many characters to keep track of right off the bat. Try not to confuse or annoy your reader! You want to hook them and keep them hooked.

Need more inspiration? Here are some archived posts that might help you.

Archived posts for starting a story:
How Should a Book Start?
Where To Start: Shan's Thoughts
Intriguing Story Openings
How To Write a Great First Scene
7 Things You Need in the Beginning of Your Novel
What Makes a Good First Chapter?
How To Show Your Story in the First Sentence
Writing a Good Opening Scene

Assignment Time

Take a good look at where you've started your novel. Do you think it's the very best place to start? You might have started in exactly the right place. Or you might be able to make a change or two that could make your opening stronger. Share in the comments where you've started and why you think it is working or why you think it might not be working.


  1. My story starts in the middle of the action. The royal assassin, Dorlin Hull, is in the middle of an assassination, when he's attacked by a shapeshifting monster demon called a Nair.I use the scene to hint at Dorlin's powers and his fear of them and his relationship with the demon and the goddess of the Underworld. It's a short scene, roundabout a 1000 words, and fast-paced. All in all I'm pretty happy with it. :-)

    1. Sounds good, Jason. Since his everyday job is so different from anything your readers have experienced (I hope), this works great.

    2. Sounds SO exciting!!

  2. My story starts with two of the things on the "Bad Ideas" list. A prologue, and everyday life. Thanks, this helped me with my beginnings a bunch.

    1. We'll talk prologues next week. Not all prologues are bad.

  3. I love the opening for my current WIP. It introduces the MC (Tess), what she loves most (horseback riding), and gives the reader quick glimpse of the world (she's at a safehouse for an organization called the DEI) before the inciting incident (arrival of the DEI's secretary).

    1. Ooh!! Keep going on that!! :)

    2. Thank you both! I had a lot of fun writing that beginning. :)

  4. My story starts like this:
    Once upon a time . . . no, this isn't a fairy tale. Maybe it is in someone's eyes. But don't expect a sappy story with a happy ending.
    Once upon a time, my life was close to perfect.
    But now it's not.
    And it's all my fault.

    Then it goes on to a dream, and she wakes up(such a cliche, but it really fits). I try to show that she's deeply disturbed by her past. She decides that it's finally time to let out her past so the whole story is her typing on her computer what happened one year ago. Starting with her everyday life.

    And also, with your Skylar character in Me just different, you said she was unlikeable. I have a similar problems. My character, Isabella is unlikeable in the past but changes at the end. I show her "real" self in the start (one year later) finish (same) and through comments throughout the story. If she is unlikeable, will this make readers not as interested?

    1. Interesting, Corgi. I like your Once upon a time twist.

      Steph wrote the Skylar books, so I'll mention your question to her.

    2. With Skylar, I finally figured out that I just needed to make her reasoning clear. I needed to make her sympathetic and understandable, so instead of the reader thinking, "Wow, what's her deal? She's annoying," they think, "Poor thing. I would feel that way too if that had happened to me." So you might just need to mess with your character's backstory a bit.

      Several other techniques I've heard but haven't used is making them funny (we like people who will make us laugh!), showing a glimpse of them doing something kind for someone else that puts them at risk, or showing how good they are at something. Competency counts for a lot.

      Hope that's helpful!

    3. Sounds exciting!! Keep going!! :)

    4. Thanks everyone!
      Sorry about that mistake, Jill.
      So, if I make it really obvious my character has had something bad happen ( not saying what happens until the end) in the past, and then introduce the story, which is all what happened that day in the past? Does this make sense?

  5. My Fantasy WIP starts like this:
    A wyneka’s hunting howl pierced Areli’s ears straight to his heart. Areli dragged his cloak closer to his body and rubbed his hands by the fire. The licking flames contended with the chills running up and a down his toes.
    A hunting wyneka’s howl meant death for either it or its prey.
    And he had seen enough death in his seventeen years.

    I've redone my beginning so many times, but I *think* I like this version the best, but it is a toss up. The previous version starts with showing Areli's weakness (while still action orientated backstory) While this one uses his tragic backstory to tease readers and only hints at his weakness and guilt, while showing his heroic qualities. It is a hard choice....

    Thanks for the post, as always it is so informative and helpful. :)

  6. Hello, this is off topic, but I was wondering what order the Kinsman Chronicles books are supposed to be read in? Because on goodreads, it says that 2.1,2.2, etc are being published beiges book 2. Thank you

    1. That depends how you want to read them: ebooks or print. Here is a link to the Kinsman Chronicles on my website that shows each print book and the ebooks that have the same content:

  7. I really like my opening right now :) I think I need to add a little more conflict though, and one of my beta readers didn't think my antagonist was very evil, so I am going to try and make a few changes there.

    1. It's hard to have a really evil antagonist from page one. Oftentimes, readers need to see that grow.

  8. My book opens like this: I try to force my brain to get it. Chris is dying. I repeat it to myself, like a chant. I can't feel anything. I should be feeling something. My mind hits a block and I can't process it. Too much. Too sudden.

    So, yeah. I am guilty of opening the book up sad, but there's no way to change that. It's kind of the point anyway, so...

    I hope I've entered in the right place. I've changed it several times. My introduction was originally in the middle of the book. Then I read my family the scene in the middle and my mom said, "I think you should start the story there." So, I did and it was a whole bunch better. I then edited out 2 chapters of the beginning to drop the reader right in the middle of the scene. It's benefited greatly from that. :)

    Thanks for this post!

    1. Sounds like you've worked hard at it, Hannah. If the opening fits the genre, then you'll find your readers. Trust your gut!

    2. Actually, I think the big thing with opening with a funeral is not so much that it's sad, but ...
      a. it has been done a lot.
      b. The particular scenario does not provide any hope for the characters involved. With your character, Chris is dying, but he's not dead, which means potential future conflict, stakes, and etc.
      c. Your character has limited emotions they can show at the funeral, and so it isn't a particularly interesting scene to open with in terms of characterization.
      There are potential twists on this over-used trope, but it has been used to the point the scene itself won't pick up much interest.
      However, starting a book with a 'sad' scene isn't a sin. There are lots of questions for the reader regarding Chris and the relation to the main character and plot, so your beginning is a actually a rather effective hook.

  9. My story is about a young woman named Anne who escapes marriage to her enemy. It's pretty complicated, but the king engaged her to her enemy and she must escape a terrible marriage. It's a romance.
    My opening is a prologue. I am pretty sure my prologue is okay, so I won't worry... for now. Lol.
    I was actually thinking my opening with a quote. I think I'll do that. :)
    The beginning of my story ISN'T an average day. It's the day Anne will hear who she's betrothed to. I've been writing like crazy in my spare time. I'm enjoying it.
    Well, I'm nervous to post this, (because I'm afraid I've done it wrong) but here is the opening:
    Anne nervously clasped her hands. Today was the day that would change her life forever...
    Is it a good opening? Or not?
    I'm sorry, I am a little nervous to learn about my opening.
    Please be honest about it.

    1. Oh the ... means the story continues. It's not part of the story.

    2. I would say that's a good place to start. There's certainly plenty of tension--I mean, "Today was the day her life would change forever" is pretty high-stakes, don't you think? If my life is about to change forever, I want to know about it. And if Anne's life is about to change forever, I want to know about THAT, too. So yeah, I think it's a good, interesting opening. :-)

    3. I agree. It sucks you in. Good job, Gisela! And thanks for sharing.

      You might flip those two sentences, though. Ex: Today was the day Anne's life would change forever. She nervously clasped her hands. (Or maybe "wrung" her hands, to get one word out of two.) But that way you get your strongest sentence first, then her reacting to the thought. Humans tend to think first, then react.

    4. I agree as well, life changing events are very promising for readers, and as long as there is some good follow up (showing why her life is changing, or just giving teasers to how until you reveal her situation), it's a strong opening.

    5. Thanks for the ideas! :)

  10. Thanks for the input!! I'm always nervous about beginning my book. This WILL help!!

  11. I open one of my WIPs by crushing the heroine's dreams and another by having my heroine do something pretty stupid that gets her in trouble.

    Writing that just made me realize that I start most of my WIPs from the POV of the heroine even though they are the only female POVs in their books that have 2-3 male POVs. And one of them isn't necessarily the main character.

    1. LOL! Crushing dreams and characters doing stupid things make pretty interesting hooks.
      My WIP has five POVs, so I feel like I have five different beginnings. However, I started with the character with the second most screen time because events from his POV and his situation are the beginning to everything which happen to my other POVs.
      So starting with someone either than the main character is alright depending.
      Starting with a non POV character who doesn't get another chapter is usually bad, and the screen time/importance of your characters should be taken into account when choosing who you start with first. I am just pointing out it's not terrible to start with a non MC character if your story calls for it, even if there is unequal screen time.

  12. My story starts in the middle of suspense/tension. So far it seems to be suspenseful but not confusing to readers. It begins with Rosamond and her companions sneaking away into the night and being chased by fairies. The confusing part is that why they are being chased is not at all obvious, but the reader will learn why later on.
    I've written a prologue for the story told from the villain's point of view, but I'm not sure I'll include it.

    1. Revenge of the Fifth is tomorrow, by the way. And Saturday is The Phantom Seventh.

  13. Together they sat, father and son, out on the threshold of the world—where the land rolled and fell for miles upon miles, wild and lonely with the scattered sheep, the heath, and the herds of bison and camox, til it met the mountains rising up terrible and blue out of the earth.
    A great shaggy dog, a turmacain, lay crouched by the father’s feet, her great solemn eyes fixed on the sheep grazing in the little valley below.
    “They don’t believe in the prophecy, Father,” Darro said, twisting up handfuls of the windblown grass as he spoke, “and they keep it from him.”

    That is my opening, and though it begins a little slowly with description and a long sentence, etc., I believe it works because it shows what kind of story the following pages will tell, as well as showing the hero's last day of normal life. Also, foreshadowing is thick in the following scene.


    and my book opens with my protag, Raven, getting into a fight at work and thus getting fired. but it's a lot more serious since her family is super poor and living by the day. so that's pretty much a death sentence for them.


  15. I, uh ... started my novella with a backstory/info-dump. *facepalm* YEAH it needs work, but for some reason I can't figure out any other way to start. Perhaps I just haven't tried hard enough yet :). I'll keep working on it!

  16. Thanks!! This is really helpful!! I'm pretty sure my story started out well. :-)

  17. I *may* have begun my book with a little too much normal. I'll have to look into that . . .