How to Start Your Novel

By: Ken Brown
Published: 4/24/2021

Novel Beginnings

I want to present to you a comparison of two books and how they start. The lead up to the inciting incident if you will.

One book is by Kevin J Anderson and the other is by Robert Jordan. Both are master writers and I think Kevin J Anderson has written over 150 novels. For Kevin's book, I am reading, The Edge of the World, which I will compare to Robert Jordan's classic, The Eye of the World, the first book in his Wheel of Time Series. I'm going to try to keep from saying one book is better than the other as my goal here is to provide contrast to ways to open a novel to keep your reader's engaged and hooked. Both books can be classified as Epic Fantasy genre with great world building.

Multiple POV to Start the Novel or a Single POV?

In The Edge of the World, Kevin J Anderson begins by introducing multiple characters in a series of quick chapters. This will be the major players and their early goals for the novel. You quickly get the "Big World" view of continents, conflicts, history and desires for peace.

Robert Jordan starts his novel by following his POV character, Rand, from a small farm miles from the nearest village and then has that character travel to the village for the annual spring festival.

In this regard I like Jordan's strategy better. It's a close first person POV and we learn about the character's fears, desires and plans for the future. We get glimpses into a world bigger than the village, but it's early in the story and our character has never really been but a few miles from the village with friends. It's a small world.

Too Many Characters

I find that the more characters you introduce in the first ten thousand words, the greater chance your reader will put the book down. I know my wife won't last long when a book throws multiple characters at her early in the story especially if their names are difficult to pronounce. It's like watching a mystery on TV. Some directors like to give you a quick introduction to the characters and then step back to the series' main characters where we get a chance to dig deeper into the story.

How many characters are too many? I can't answer that, but it isn't the number necessarily, but how they are presented. Jordan introduces the POV's father, girlfriend, the village council member, the POV's best friends, the village mayor and his wife all in the first two to five chapters (not including the prologue.) So it isn't always about the numbers of people presented, but how they are presented.

In Anderson's story, we get a good first chapter with one POV and then the next chapter we are presented a different location, a different POV and the beginnings of a new story (or so it seems.) Then the third, fourth and I think fifth chapters also are introduction chapters. As a reader I'm not sure exactly who to root for.

The Inciting Incident

At some point usually in the first 10% of the story an inciting incident occurs. The story begins for real. I slogged through Anderson's story, loosely remembering characters and whose side they were on, but then before Part 2 began, there is an exciting incident. I'm fully engaged in the story by the time the inciting incident takes place. I really think Anderson could have started the story at this point and it would be just as good. I know the general characters and I have picked a character to be my champion. (I might have picked the wrong one, I don't know yet.)

Jordan also has an inciting incident where the main POV character has to make a decision to journey outside of his local village to save his life and the life of his family and friends. I know exactly who I'm cheering for and even though the people helping him make this decision are still questionable, I applaud the decision and I'm ready to join the character on the journey.

What does all this Mean?

I'm making this comparision so you can decide how you want to start your story. Do you want to start with the big picture like Anderson and then focus more and more on the individual characters as the story progresses? Or like Jordan, start with a single character and journey with them until the inciting incident? Do you risk losing readers when you invite too many characters and their backgrounds into the story too early?

Will your readers associate their own lives with your main character's life and be happy to join in the journey? These are questions you should ask about your story. Have you published a novel and it never "took off" and sold the way you thought it should? Did you have people who have read the whole story and tell you they liked it? So why hasn't it sold more?

Take a look at the beginning of your novel before the inciting incident. You do have an inciting incident, right? Do you have too many characters and your reader is confused or just doesn't care? Did they join the journey with one person and naturally meet others as the story progresses? Evaluate your story and have these convesations with beta readers, your writing group or your editor.

Write Everyday.