An aspiring writer asked me this morning:
I have this story in my head that I've been thinking about for a week now, but the problem that I've come across is that I simply don't know where and how to begin the book. . . . But how does one effectively start, and grab someone's attention, without making it seem obvious? Does it not seem cliche'd to start a book with dialogue ("Work, you piece of junk!"), or some sort of subjective statement from a first person point of view, which almost evokes an image of the smoky narration of a film noir ("Blood looks strange in zero gravity"). Or is it equally cliche'd to come up with something profound to say like the very first line of Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities?
Are those the only three ways of starting the novel?
This is a subject I think about constantly, and as I progress on a novel I often go back to the beginning to "retrofit" it in preparation for some development I hadn't anticipated. See my post on That First-Chapter Problem for some details.
But there are some basic principles that writers should know and respect. (Geniuses like John LeCarré and Gabriel García Márquez can ignore these principles, but not the rest of us.)
First, a novel (or a short story for that matter) should begin at the moment when the story itself becomes inevitable. Maybe that's the day the hero is born, or two hours before the gunmen arrive on the noon train. But something happens that sets events in motion. Ideally, the opening is as close to the climax as possible. We can fill in the backstory through flashbacks or exposition later on. The events in The Lord of the Rings, for example, occur in the last few weeks of a story extending over thousands of years, with Tolkien explaining the historical context only when he has to explain someone's motives or behaviour.
Second, the opening should show a character (maybe the hero, maybe someone else) experiencing some kind of appropriate stress. This stress serves a couple of purposes: It gives us an immediate glimpse into the character's personality and values, and it sets the theme of the story.
Suppose you're writing a story about a middle-aged nun's crisis of faith. This won't be a tale of blazing sixguns and hairsbreadth escapes, but the nun should encounter some kind of stress at the outset. If the story is about her faith in God, then the initial stress might be her discovery that she's been lied to by someone she trusts.
If your story is about your hero's need to be physically and morally courageous, then putting him under gunfire on page 1 may be entirely appropriate...especially if we see him wet his pants in terror. That will give him a reason to redeem himself later in the story.
What's at Stake?
Early in the story we should also learn what is at stake in this story: a nun's peace of mind, or the fate of the Galactic Empire, or a happy marriage, or a test of manhood. We don't have to come out flat-footedly with someone saying, "Omigod, the Roman Catholic Church may collapse in ruins!" But if we already feel we know and care about the character, that character's concerns become important to us.
Editors, by the way, always want to know what's at stake in your story, so it's a good idea when pitching the idea in a query letter to explain why the outcome matters.
We want to know where and when we are, so some indication of the setting is helpful: New York City on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941; a gully opening into Valles Marineris on Mars, sometime in the 23rd century.
We also want to know the arena of conflict—where the real struggle is going to take place. Maybe it's a geographical region that someone will end up owning; maybe it's the hero's own conflicted mind.
Hooking the Reader
We've all picked up books on the strength of the back-cover blurb (which essentially sets out what's at stake), and even more so on the strength of the opening page or two. And yes, some openings are indeed overdone: the bizarre statement, the scrap of dialogue, and especially the waking of the hero at dawn.
Nonetheless, I confess that I've started at least a couple of my novels with the waking-hero gimmick, and I'm using dialogue to start chapter 1 of Henderson's Tenants. The early-morning start reflects a common narrative principle: natural cycles like days and seasons are also part of stories. In my novel Eyas, I began with the line "Out of darkness came dawn." That's a summary of the whole novel, not just an inverted way of saying "The sun came up."
In Henderson, the first line is a sentence of death: Mike Henderson's doctor tells him he has advanced pancreatic cancer, against which even the advanced medicine of 2030 is helpless. This is when Mike's real story begins, and what's at stake is his very life.
Sometimes a beginning just forces itself on the writer. When I got the basic idea for Rogue Emperor, a time-travel story, I knew it had to begin in the Colosseum during a gladiatorial combat, when the emperor of Rome is assassinated with a wire-guided anti-tank missile. Why? Ask my subconscious writer. It was up to me to develop a story from that point.
Think about this also: In the western tradition, almost every fiction is a retelling of the expulsion from Eden, the journey through the desert of this world, and the attempt either to go back to Eden or to go on to the City of Heaven...in either case, a great good place. So the start of the novel should show the hero (or someone relevant to the story) losing some reasonably tranquil situation in life, with the story chronicling his/her efforts to regain that tranquility.
The start of the novel should also foreshadow the ending. Rogue Emperor ends with my time-traveling spy, Jerry Pierce, back in the Colosseum fighting gladiators. But the foreshadowing may also be of a state of mind, or a symbolic image that we now interpret quite differently from the first time we see it—like the sled in Citizen Kane.
This all may seem to imply that you need to know your story in painful detail before you ever type "Chapter 1." But you don't. The "Rosebud" sled was a scriptwriter's afterthought. Henderson started as an exercise in "periscope writing," just jumping into Henderson's world to see what it looked like and what kind of guy he was. I'm still learning, a year and a half later. As I learn, I go back to revise Chapter 1 in various small ways, because I can now see more or less where the story is going to end up. It won't be with Mike Henderson back in his doctor's office, that's for sure.
It's also worth considering that in general, the hero doesn't want to do what the story demands. Frodo doesn't want to go to Mordor. Luke Skywalker doesn't want to go off with Obi-Wan. Adam and Eve don't want to leave Eden. Some awful event, early in the story, literally kick-starts the narrative. The hero goes because the alternatives are all even worse.
I discuss the start of the novel in more detail in my book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (International Self-Counsel Press), but the above comments cover, I hope, the key points.