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How to Start a Novel

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17 April 2023

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Are you struggling to start your story? Or maybe you’ve jotted down some words on the page but aren’t sure where your idea is going?

It’s difficult bringing our ideas to life. The first sentence is tricky. And the first chapter is even tougher. Although every step of the novel-writing process comes with its share of challenges, getting started may be the most difficult.

So, how do you start a story?

Nine easy steps to starting a book

Starting a novel is hard. Even ambitious authors can find it tough to get going. That’s why a tried and tested writing plan is the best solution. In other words, a step-by-step guide to keep you on the path to success.

Here are the nine steps I follow when writing a new project.

1. Choose an idea that inspires you

Writing a novel is a long process. Some writers complete their manuscripts in a few months, while others take a couple of years. Whatever your timeframe, you’ll want to have an idea that excites you. Otherwise, you might get bored and dump the idea before you finish.

If you’re not sure where to start, take a moment to explore the genres you’re most inspired by. Is it crime novels that grip your interest? Or are you passionate about fast-paced sci-fi books?

It’s useful to know where our interests sit as a reader before we start writing. Let’s say you’re an avid reader of thriller books, but you decide to write a children’s fantasy novel. You might find that your passion for the idea falls flat. You might even be less familiar with the typical dialogue, world-building and pacing in children’s fantasy books.

That’s not to say you can’t write outside your reading preferences. However, it’s important to choose an idea that inspires you. That way, you’ll be invested in telling your story until the very last page. You also want your readers to enjoy your novel. If you’re not in love with your idea, it probably will show through in your writing.

2. Set time aside to write

It goes without saying: make sure you sit down and write your novel.

One of the hardest obstacles for me is finding the right time to write. I soon realised that no one was going to do it for me. Every time I procrastinated with Netflix or a book rather than writing my novel, I felt guilty. The only way to relieve that was to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

So, schedule your writing time and stick to your plan. This might be as easy as half an hour a day. Or, if you can commit more time, set aside an hour in the morning to write over breakfast and an hour in the evening before bed. Every little helps towards your end goal.

There are tools to help you plan. Look out for planning workbooks like Beyond the Chapter’s planning template sheets. A writing tracking sheet can also be a wonderful tool—and great fun, too.

3. Decide on a point of view

Now that you have an idea and a schedule, you need to flesh out your novel.

One of the most important elements you need to decide on is the point of view (POV) of your story. This is the narration of the story. Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

First person

Is the “I” or “our” point of view. The reader will experience the story through the narrator. This includes everything we see, hear, smell or taste.

This perspective allows readers to enter the character’s mind more than any other POVs. First-person narrators create a sense of intimacy and build a bond with readers, since we know their thoughts, emotions and experiences.

Third person

Is the “they”, “he”, “she” or “it” point of view. This perspective offers distance between the reader and characters. The third-person narrator exists outside of the story, creating ‘the fly on the wall’ effect.

The third-person omniscient perspective is trustworthy. It can offer writers much more freedom, because there is no bias towards one character. The reader will also gain knowledge of all characters and events in the story.

There is also close third person (also known as limited third person) to consider. This point of view is similar to first person because the character’s voice and intimate thoughts can come through. However, the reader receives the descriptions from an external perspective rather than being told directly from the characters. However, with close third person, the author will typically stick closely to one character, so it offers less freedom than that of third person omniscient.

Second person

Is the “you” point of view. Many authors have written in the second person. It can bring the reader closer to the story. It could also be used to create detachment between the real narrator and the story they are telling.

In truth, second-person narrators are very uncommon. Just take a look at your favourite shelf in a bookshop. The majority of books will be written in the first or third person. If you want to write a second-person POV, it could be a barrier when looking for a literary agent, especially for new authors. It’s also difficult to get right.

Here are some examples of novels with second-person narrators:

4. Choose the tense of your story

Are you writing in the present tense or the past tense? You need to choose the tense and make sure you stick to it. Readers will quickly notice if you jump between tenses accidentally. There are pros and cons of writing in both tenses. So, it depends on which tense works best for your novel and which you feel most comfortable writing.

The present tense adds immediacy and urgency to the story. Here are some examples of popular novels written in the present tense:

The past tense is flexible and more common. It also works well in a wide range of genres. Here are some examples of popular novels written in the past tense:

Consider using a beta reader or investing in a proofreader if you find yourself jumping between tenses. Learn more about our proofreading services here.

5. Build your world

Your story’s setting gives readers context about the time and place in which it takes place.

This step requires a notebook or lots of paper. If you prefer to work digitally, open a new folder and name it SETTING. You should keep track of all the important details in word docs or excel sheets, so you can refer back to them when writing.

For most genres, deciding on your world’s time, laws, magic (if any), environment, weather and more, is essential.

Plus, when it comes to world-building, you might discover new ideas, characters and scenes also form.

6. Get to know your characters

Knowing your characters and understanding their motivations can help you convey them better in your story.

Some important questions to ask:

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • What is keeping them from getting it?
  • What are they willing to do to get it?

Getting to know your characters doesn’t stop there. Learn more about your main players with character template sheets that ask all the right questions. You could even sketch out your characters to give yourself a better idea on what they look it.

7. Give your protagonist a goal

For characters to stay motivated and help move the story forward, they need a clear goal.

You need to set up the character’s desire quickly. This could be as simple as the protagonist wanting to taste the best sandwich ever made or as challenging as wanting to find their soulmate. But it needs to be a tangible and logical goal that connects with the plot.

This goal will drive the story, and could throw your character into a quest or a cause. Your character might want to build fortunes, which results in their corruption in a criminal underworld.

8. Outline your story

If you’re like me, I struggle to write my novel without a clear plan in front of me. That’s why a novel outline is extremely useful. This step takes me a few weeks, and includes the planning of every scene on paper. With a comprehensive outline, I have a sort of guide to follow, which makes the writing process much more feasible.

There are lots of tools and resources that can help you outline your story. Index cards are a great way to plan each chapter. You can then refer to them easily when it’s time to write. Or, you might find a bullet journal more useful if you enjoy planning visually.

9. Write a gripping first line

You have one job above all others when starting your novel—grab your reader’s attention and keep them reading.

So, what are the best ways to start a novel? Craft a gripping opening line that hooks the reader. You might want to suggest a character’s problem or desire in the very first sentence. Or you might choose to set up your world’s unique characteristics, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There are plenty of ways to start your story. For some inspiration, take a look at my favourite opening lines in YA books.

Common pitfalls to avoid

There are also a few things you should avoid when starting a novel.

Starting your novel too early

Beginning too early can sink a story.

But, how do you know if you’ve started too soon? As I covered above, you need to give your protagonist a goal that keeps the story moving forward. If this goal isn’t revealed until a third of the way into your manuscript, consider cutting a few of your early scenes.

It can be useful to analyse your first few chapters once you’ve finished your book. Make sure everything that happens has a part to play. Do your first few scenes lend anything to the plot? Do those early chapters offer important character development? If you find that you have a lot of descriptions but not much actually happens, it might be a sign you’ve started too early.

Remember, your first sentence needs to interest the reader. And that first chapter needs to hook them so they keep on reading. If your character’s goal isn’t established early enough in the story, the reader might have little to cling to and their interest might start to wane.

Overloading on backstory

Too much backstory can stop the novel moving forward. It can also overwhelm readers.

Some important questions to ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • Can you show the information rather than tell it?
  • Does this information need to be told now?

Consider cutting backstory where you can. That way, your novel stays lean and propels readers onwards.

Opening with a boring sequence

Boring introductory sequences bring on yawns and sighs. Readers want to feel fascinated. They want the taste of excitement of what’s to come. If an introduction is slow and boring, readers might not stick around long enough to get to the best parts.

Some scenes to avoid and why:

  • Action scenes – can keep the reader from getting to know your main players.
  • Dream sequence – it’s been done before and it’s hard to make original.
  • Weather opening – uninteresting and predictable.

Instead, start your novel with a boom.

Extravagant language

If you’re substituting simple words with elaborate ones, your sentences will become harder to read.

Many readers will have issue with wordy sentences that require a dictionary to understand them.

To avoid complex, wordy sentences, consider using the Hemingway app. This helpful will grade your writing, which can be a great guide if you tend to lean towards long, wordy sentences.

Extravagant language can also mean you’re describing unnecessary details. This is why the editing stage is so important.

A huge cast of characters

We can easily feel confused when there are too many characters to keep up with.

To avoid your readers walking away bamboozled, make sure every character is vivid and memorable. That’s if they’re necessary. If they’re unnecessary—eliminate them.

You need a core cast of characters that each have a purpose. If you have multiple minor characters that have a singular, seemingly small objective, consider merging them.

Ready to start your novel?

Writing a book takes plenty of time and dedication. But that tried and tested writing plan can lead you to a carefully-crafted finished novel.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve learned on my writing journey is to seek feedback and a pair of eagle eyes. Looking for both? I’ve got you covered. I offer editorial services, including proofreading and copy-editing, that can help your writing shine. Find out more on the Writing Hub.

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Written By Eira Edwards

Eira is a writer and editor from the South of England with over five years of experience as a Content Manager, helping clients perfect their copy.

She has a degree in English Literature and Language, which she loves putting to work by working closely with fiction authors.

When she’s not working on manuscripts, you can find her in the woods with her partner and dog, or curling up with a good book.

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