How to Start a Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Beginnings
Treat your audience to a strong start to your book by following these helpful story beginning tips.
I think every author dreams at least once of having that golden opening line that’s repeated in book clubs, on merchandise, and in the tattoos of dedicated fans (well, actually, that last one scares me a bit). They idly imagine readers casually picking up a book and being so enamored with it that they finish the whole thing in one go. Or of penning an opening so iconic, literary agents seeking the next New York Times bestselling author will be knocking on their doors, trying to sign them.
Well, I don’t know about merch or tattoos or getting readers in trouble for blocking bookstore aisles as they read, but I do know that a good opening - whether that’s a first line, first scene, or the whole first act - is the best way to keep your readers reading and sell yourself as a good writer right away.
So, how do you make that dream a reality? What makes a good beginning? Let’s explore that.
What the start of a book should accomplish
When I talk about the start of your book here, I’m not talking about your introduction. Your introduction is a separate piece that’s written after you’ve finished the manuscript, giving your audience a little more background information about you and the world you’ve written. It’s not actually a canonical part of your story. I’m also usually not talking specifically about the first sentence, chapter, or paragraph. I’ll touch on those, sure, but when I’m talking about the start of your book, I’m talking about the larger first third of your story, one of the three basic “acts:” beginning, middle, and end. (See this article about hooks for a closer look at opening sentences, and the first chapter.)
There are a few things that the start of your book should do. It should:
- Introduce your cast, or most of it
- Establish point of view (POV). First person? Third person? Are we following one character the whole book, or are there multiple POVs?
- Set the seeds for character development. What are the character’s motivations? Good writing will have readers speculating about where the characters may end up by the end of the novel.
- Set up the world that the story is taking place in
- Bring us into the conflict with the inciting incident, and start our protagonist on their journey
- Offer us a glimpse of the action to come in Act 2
So, let’s discuss these elements of the first “act.” We’ll use Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games as an example.
Introduce your cast
It’s hard to love a story when you have no idea who it’s about. Even if the literal identities of your characters are a secret that you plan to surprise us with later, we need to know generally who we’re rooting for and against as early as possible. In the beginning of your book, you’ll want to show us:
- The protagonist. This is who the story is about, so they usually need to be the very first person we meet, and it needs to be obvious that we’re going to be following them through the tale.
- Important side characters. Setting up your mentor figures early on is incredibly important as they generally die pretty early as well; we need time to get to know and love them for that to work properly. We also need to meet our protagonist’s long-term friends and allies, as well as any love interests or B-plot protagonists, pretty early on. Basically, you’ll want to introduce anyone that we’re going to be spending a lot of time with.
- The antagonists. You can keep your big bad a secret if you want, but it’s got to be at least obvious that there is a baddie that needs to be dealt with. In this case, consider introducing a mini-antagonist (such as a town bully or the bad guy who works for the big bad) to get the ball rolling.
If you’ve got a big cast full of towns with lots of named characters or big political structures, try to focus your introduction on your core cast - the characters who will be directly relevant to your plot and who will be responsible for moving it along. At this early stage keep the backstory to a minimum - we want to know the characters and the stakes of the story before slowing down the pace with a look at the past.
Let’s look at this in action. In The Hunger Games, we immediately meet Katniss and are shown that she’s a no-nonsense, independent, and capable teen struggling to support her family. We then meet Gale, Katniss’s best friend and future love interest, then Prim, her little sister and the biggest part of her motivation. After that, we meet Effie Trinket, our first look at the Capital and our window into it, Peeta, the last part of the love/morality triangle, and finally Haymitch, our mentor figure (literally).
Each of these meetings shows us a little more about the world we’re playing in and why we should care about it, which gets us more invested in the story and encourages us to keep reading.
Set up the world
Along with characters, we’re going to need to know about the world that we’re working with. You can establish the specifics of your world and how it functions on a political or philosophical scale later; right now, we need to know the name of where we are, what the rules are, and how those rules affect our protagonist.
So, looking at our example, we get some excellent setup for the world of Panem with Katniss’s opening scenes.
She’s hunting in the woods, determined to bring home game for her family and Gale’s. We now know that her family and others survive on the food she finds, but - given that she sneaks through a fence and hides her bow - that she’s not supposed to have it. She’s worried about getting back in time for something called the Reaping, which we know is bad because Prim has been having nightmares about it, and every mention of it makes characters tense and upset. It must be important if it’s pulling Katniss away from her obviously necessary hunting.
We see the rundown ruins of District 12 and listen as Katniss worries about being caught by Peacekeepers - we can reasonably assume they’re some kind of law enforcement and not a pleasant one. Then we meet Effie, the perfectly coiffed Capital ambassador, who is awkward around the district members and their strange, dirty little lives and who gives us our first look at what the rest of the country looks like.
These scenes show us where we are (Panem, a dystopian society), what the basic rules of the world are (the Capital rules everything and the Districts are subjugated with deadly force), and how those rules affect our hero, Katniss (she is forced to go outside of the Capital’s control to feed her family and forced into the games to protect her innocent sister).
Bring us into the conflict
Stories are all about conflict; without it, there aren’t any stakes or anything for us to root for our characters to do. We’ve explored how to work conflict into your story before, but in the context of an introduction, what we need to know about the conflict is:
- What the issue is
- Who we’re rooting for
- What the stakes are
The conflict you introduce at the start of your book doesn’t have to be the main conflict; in fact, this might be a good time to introduce a red herring motivation - send your characters on a wild goose chase that just so happens to get them closer to the main villain’s plots and gives them a reason to want to thwart them.
In The Hunger Games, our first real look at the conflict is actually after Katniss volunteers, while her family and friends do their final visits. Prim makes her promise to come home which forces Katniss into conflict with Peeta and the other Tributes, Madge Undersee (the mayor’s daughter) gives her a token of home to help motivate her - the very token that becomes the basis of the revolution later, and Gale shows his affection for her for the first time, setting up the romantic and political conflict that the entire series will hinge on.
Offer a glimpse of the action
Finally, your introduction should give us a look at - but not directly bring us into - the primary action of Act 2. We need to know exactly what it is that we’re going to be doing for the next part of the story, and why we should keep reading it. If you’ve done your beginning well, this is the easiest part; your readers are already invested in the characters, so giving them a taste of what’s to come will be more than enough to keep them reading.
You can glimpse action in a couple of ways, but each has its caveats:
- Kill off a character. Foreshadow the death early in the first act, tell us what the consequences will be, then do it. Your readers go into Act 2 knowing that certain things must happen because of the character’s death.
- Warning: killing a character for no reason, or killing a character whose arc isn’t finished (and isn’t likely to be resolved by the protagonist in their stead) is likely to stop readers from continuing. Character deaths have to feel important and appropriate, even if they don’t feel fair.
- Set up the plan. Your characters have their quest, so how are they going to achieve their goals? Have your characters sit down and plan it out, then head out on their mission. Simple, right? What could possibly go wrong? That’s what your audience will keep reading to find out.
- Warning: The plan that your characters set up should always go wrong in one way or another, otherwise the plot isn’t interesting. Remember - you know everything, but your characters don’t. Let them miss something important!
- Surprise the party. Your characters have finished the first leg of their journey. They’ve arrived at the first port of call. They’re taking a moment to rest. SUDDENLY - PLOT! Interrupt their break with important news or action to spur them into Act 2.
- Warning: Surprise is good, but unwarranted change isn’t. Make sure that the surprise has a reasonable and easy-to-follow explanation for the audience to discover later on. A change that comes out of nowhere from an outside perspective isn’t a surprise - it’s a plot hole.
Okay, so how is this done in The Hunger Games? Our first look at the action is Katniss and Peeta’s arrival in the Capital.
They’ve already had the great food and comfortable beds for the first time, but now they’re seeing what the Games look like from the other side of the glass. There are cheering crowds clamoring to get a glimpse of their faces, shouting media reporters crowding the train station, and a general air of excitement and glee. This is our first real look at what preparing for the Games will look like. It’s not a hardcore boot camp of training to survive - it’s a game show, and the contestants are playing in a court of personality for their lives.
This is a complete change from the world of the districts; we’re officially not in Kansas anymore, so we know that Act 2 is going to be all about navigating this deadly fashion show.
How to start writing a book
Now that we know what the beginning of a book should look like, let’s look at how you start doing the writing itself.
Before you write anything at all
You’ll need to do a little bit of prep work before you start writing your draft.
- Get excited about your book ideas. Hype yourself up! Create character playlists and mood boards and aesthetic palettes, talk your friends’ ears off about your world, and fall in love with the story you’re creating. Creating is always easier when you’re passionate about it. Look at the book covers of bestsellers in your genre, and imagine your own book beside them. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big! (Just keep your expectations realistic to avoid disappointment.)
- Make a game plan. Create an outline for your project, even if it’s just a rough web of ideas on a napkin. Having a (flexible!) plan will always make writing easier. It’s not necessary to plot out the entire book, but you’ll at least want a high level roadmap, so you know the big ideas the story should include, and have a sense of how to get there. This plan can save a lot of time in the editing process, reducing the likelihood of needing a lot of rewrites. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, figure in research time. Consider experimenting with your book writing software to learn how it will handle any charts, graphs, or photos you may wish to include.
- Set a writing schedule. Make sure that you have dedicated writing time set aside during your day. Work it into your schedule, set alarms, don’t check social media during that time, and treat it with the same level of respect that you would an important work meeting - because that’s what it is. It just happens to be a meeting between you and yourself. Creative writing is hard work - approach it with discipline, and you’ll be setting yourself up for success. Stephen King starts his writing every day between 8:00 and 8:30am, with a daily quota of 2,000 words. That regularity helps explain how he’s finished so many great books!
- Set up your writing space. Put some thought into the location where the actual writing takes place. Do you do your best work at the library, or local coffee shop? Do you write at home? Is your place cozy and welcoming, or a distracting mess?
- Establish writing goals. Professional writers develop writing habits that keep them productive. These goals could include daily word count targets, our hours of time invested writing. You may not be able to write full-time, but can you write for an hour? Or commit to 500 words a day? (That would be 182,500 words over the course of a year, which is multiple books worth of content!)
- Pick your publishing process. This isn’t required, and you’re allowed to change your mind about it, but it may be worth thinking through if you want to pursue traditional publishing with your book, or self-publish with Amazon and other retailers. This way, you’re writing with an endgame in mind, and not wondering what to do with your book when it’s finished.
Writing fiction and self-editing are skills, and all skills improve with time and practice. Successful writers have a growth mindset, and always look for new ways to become a better writer. As you go through the process of writing any new book, keep an eye out for writing tools which might help you be more productive, self-help books or podcasts which could inform how you shape your writing style, templates that could save you time with worldbuilding or note-taking, and any other writing tips you think have value.
Write the most interesting scene first
If you’ve got a cool climactic battle rattling around in your skull, but you’ve got no idea how to get there, then I’ve got good news for you: you can just write the battle scene first. Yep! Shockingly, books do not have to be written in order thanks to a wonderful magic known as editing and revising. There is no single step-by-step guide to the novel writing process. It’s totally OK to focus on the scenes that pique your interest the most, before moving on to the rest of the book.
Whichever scene you find the most interesting or compelling or complete in your mind: write that one first. The rest of your story, especially the beginning, will be easier to commit to paper if you already have some idea of what the story will look like through other scenes.
- Set a timer for a short amount of time. It can be anywhere from a minute to ten minutes.
- Start the timer.
- WRITE! Don’t stop typing, don’t lift your pen from the page, don’t edit at all - just write, and continue writing until the timer goes off.
- When the timer goes off, stop. Put your pen down, hands off the keyboard, and take a short break.
- Read what you wrote - but don’t edit it. Note down any ideas you think are interesting enough to pursue in the actual draft of your book.
You can use freewriting as a warmup writing session - with no relation to your story idea at all - or as a way to push past that slump of not knowing where to start writing your manuscript. It helps open your brain up to the idea that you can write down anything you want and helps you get into that first-draft headspace: write first, think later.
The technique of five-minute sprint writing is particularly popular with writing groups such as those hosted by NaNoWriMo. This technique is quite similar to freewriting in that it involves setting a five-minute timer and then writing nonstop. The difference is that, during a sprint, you’re aiming to get as many words into your work-in-progress as you can, so what you write has to be related to your project.
Sprints are good in group settings because they can encourage healthy competition between peers - who got the highest word count? Who wrote the most interesting sentence? Beyond that, sharing your work after a sprint can help you get feedback and ideas for how to continue writing in a more relaxed setting.
How to start a story
Now that you’ve got a way to get pen to paper, let’s look at what that pen should be doing. Here are some tips for starting your story once you’ve started writing at all.
Show us the action immediately
How many times have you picked up a book, read ten pages, then put it down without having any idea what the actual book is supposed to be about? We as writers always love giving rich details about the worlds we create, but if our readers haven’t met anyone from that world yet, they’re not going to keep your reader’s attention no matter how pretty the scenery is.
Start your story in the middle of the action - in media res - to hook your readers immediately and get them curious. As cliche as it sounds, you’re aiming for that “[record scratch] Yep, that’s me. I bet you’re wondering how I got into this mess” moment.
Some great stories that do this:
- Percy Jackson: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”
- This leaves us with a lot of questions! What’s a half-blood? Why is that a bad thing? Why does this person sound like they’re upset at us? Do people sometimes dream of being a half-blood?
- The Color Purple: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
- A fantastic piece of dialogue that gets our interest immediately. Who’s talking? Who are they talking to? What are they warning against talking about?
Characters first, setting second
The most interesting part of your story by design is your main character and the recurring cast, so your book’s beginning should find them as soon as possible. If we spend an entire chapter reading about characters that we don’t explore later on, or we spend several pages exploring the setting without meeting a single soul, we’ll only end up frustrated.
An example that does this well is the first book in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but it does it in a bit of a weird way: Harry himself isn’t properly introduced until the second chapter. In all of chapter one, he’s a baby that everyone else is talking about - but this makes it very obvious that he’s important enough for an entire community of people to talk about all at once.
Instead of being introduced to him directly, we’re introduced through the fearful reactions of his aunt and uncle (who become incredibly important foils for his wizarding family and direct keys to the plot later on), the skeptical care of Professor McGonagall (who becomes a key mentor figure almost immediately when Harry arrives at school), and the curiously calm determination of Professor Dumbledore (who, as we all know, becomes a controversial and pivotal character later in the series). We’re also briefly introduced to Hagrid (everyone’s favorite monster-loving father figure) who mentions Sirius Black in passing (our book three “antagonist” and later tragic father figure).
This roundtable of characters lets us see our most important story beats right up front so that we’re ready to meet this boy everyone’s talking about and for things to go haywire at the end of the next chapter.
Challenge our expectations
What if your story is set in a world that’s weird, or one that follows rules that are entirely different from ours? If that’s the case, you might want to start by challenging your audience’s expectations. Say something that doesn’t make sense in normal, everyday life, then immediately show us how it makes sense in that world.
Some wonderful examples of this:
- The Handmaid’s Tale: “We slept in what had once been a gymnasium.”
- This gets you thinking without even trying. Why is the speaker sleeping in a gym? Why isn’t it a gym anymore? Why is that important to know?
- George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
- This strikes the reader as immediately wrong. Clocks don’t strike thirteen - why is there an extra hour on the clocks in this world?
- Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies: “I am Dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it.”
- That’s immediately not what we’re expecting to hear from our protagonist. How are they talking to us if they’re dead? Why is “dead” capitalized? What does he mean he “learned to live with it?” We’re primed and ready to go for a zombie story that isn’t typical at all.
Starting your story can often be the hardest part of the writing process, whether you’re writing your first novel, or have been self-publishing for years. You’re going from a blank page to a manuscript, and it all comes down to what you put on that very first page under the heading, “Chapter 1.”
As long as you know where you’re going, though, and what your introduction needs to do, starting your story can be fun rather than frightening. Keep your eyes on your story’s main themes and plot, give us someone to root for and some reason to keep reading, and you’ll have a hook that lands wonderfully with all the right people.
Good luck with all your book writing adventures!