Has it always been your dream to write a novel, but you’re unsure where to begin? Got a great idea for a story but not sure how to start a novel?
The thought of novel writing from scratch can seem daunting, especially if it’s your first attempt. However, it doesn’t have to be so difficult.
With the step by step guide offered below, you should find it much easier to start your novel.
The first few lines of your novel may be the most important.
Why? Because the opening sentence is the hook. An intriguing sentence, paragraph, or statement sparks curiosity in the reader and makes them want to continue reading.
In this article, we’ll explore how you can make your opening lines powerful enough to pull the reader to read the early pages and dive into the world of your story.
We’ll also offer some simple but highly effective tips on getting started with writing a novel in general.
How to start a novel
In creating a novel’s beginning, a writing process will make it easier to produce a good story that a reader will find hard to put down. Let’s go over them one by one.
1. Identify the premise
First things first, you need an idea. What is your story about? Why should it be told?
This ‘what’ and ‘why’ is your premise and, if possible, should be summarized in a sentence or two.
Sure, your story may be complex, full of rich characters, plot changes, and vivid settings, but you should also be able to summarize the main idea or premise in a line or two.
Doing so helps you stay on track when losing your way.
Consider the following famous examples of literary fiction and their premises.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) – A young girl finds herself in another world after getting carried away by a tornado. In this new world, she meets friends and all search for a powerful wizard who can help her return home.
Moby Dick (Herman Melville) – the only survivor of a lost ship, the story is about the ship captain’s powerful and destructive obsession with finding a particular white whale.
The Outsider (Albert Camus) – Meursault’s mother is dead. He can acknowledge the situation but refuses to feign emotions to satisfy others’ expectations.
Try to summarize your premise like the examples above by answering the following questions:
- What is your story about?
- In what situation does your main characters find themselves?
- What is the struggle faced?
2. Create an outline
Starting a novel involves a lot more than writing the opening line. Most novelists won’t attempt to open a novel until they have a clear, well-developed idea of the characters, the world (setting), and the overall tone and theme of the story.
Before you start writing, it helps to create an outline for your story. The outline is a roadmap that enables you to navigate your narrative and effectively take the reader from A to B to C.
Understand that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. What are those in your story? Identify these three structural elements and write a summary of each.
Remember that your story does not have to be written chronologically – you can move back and forth in time as much as you like, as long as you carry the reader with you.
Consider the outline as scaffolding or a skeleton for your story, on which you’ll build and develop your main characters, settings, and plot points.
Understand that an outline is not even your first draft. Its purpose is to help you stay focused and on track throughout the writing process.
Details, character arcs, and even plot points may shift and change as you write the narrative and move through your first, second, and third drafts, but having a basic structure will help you return to the center if you go off track or lose your way.
Writing a consistent narrative can be challenging, and you may face periods of writer’s block along the way. An outline helps you break through that dreaded writer’s block by bringing your focus back to your main structure and plot points.
How to open your novel
You’re ready to begin writing when you’ve finished your outline, fleshed out strong characters, and mapped out your main plot points.
Of course, there is still more fleshing out, but this takes place as you write more drafts.
As mentioned, the opening lines of your novel are some of its most important. Your opening line is where your reader begins the story, so you need to reel them in. A reader is unlikely to read your novel if you don’t grab their attention from the very beginning.
1. Open with intensity
A great opening line is not heavy on exposition or fine details.
The opposite is often true. Intrigue, mystery, and even shock are incredibly effective at hooking a reader’s attention into your novel’s introduction.
If you can spark a sense of interest and itching curiosity with your opening lines in the first page, you’ll make the reader want to find out more.
Later you can offer the reader finer details about a important characters or element of the setting, but you need to make them want to know those details in the first place.
It’s common for new writers to try to explain the character’s background or describe the context and setting before getting into the juice of the story.
It seems to make sense at first – if a reader knows some details about a character or the world of the story, then they’ll understand what’s happening when we come to the conflict. However, that’s not the way to hook a reader.
Your reader doesn’t know when the conflict will come or what will happen, so why should they invest time reading the first few pages to discover that the main character went to Harvard or has a pet dog named Sally?
2. Introduce your main character early
The main character, or protagonist, is often the vehicle with which an author carries the story. Sometimes the main character isn’t even the most exciting in the story, but their life brings all other aspects together.
As such, you should introduce your readers to your main character relatively early in the story. Just a suggestion, don’t let them get too invested in a side character in the first scene only to find out a chapter or two later that they must now invest in a new main character for the rest of the journey.
While intrigue and mystery make a great opening line, readers also want to find their main protagonist, the person they will follow and root for throughout the story.
When you introduce your main character, don’t just explain their background. As mentioned earlier, too much exposition without the juice is boring.
You can work on character development later, but for the reader’s first introduction to your main character, drop the character into some trouble.
Let the reader come to know them during times of conflict, and use later pages and even chapters to explore why they reacted to that initial conflict in the way they did.
3. Introduce characters slowly
When a new character enters the story, give them some time.
Instead of explaining everything about a character, offer the reader a particular scene in which they get to know the character’s personality.
The reader needs time to get to know a character.
Again, that doesn’t mean you must offer a lengthy explanation of that new character’s background. It simply means that when we meet a new character, we have time to digest them, even if they only have one line.
If you introduce too many characters at once, the reader is unlikely to remember all of them. That will lead to confusion later if one of those characters does something important that affects the plot.
4. Interact with your setting
The setting of your novel is another character.
Features, qualities, and limits to the setting frame the world in which the characters live.
There’s nothing wrong with explaining your setting, primarily if you’ve managed to write a beautiful and vivid description, but don’t over-indulge.
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is showing off their descriptive skills. You may have the fanciest and most powerful adjectives on the page, strong, colorful imagery, and similes for days, but all of that is pointless if it doesn’t affect the characters and the plot.
Instead of relying on a direct explanation of your setting, let your characters interact with it. Through their interactions and the limits they face regarding the environment in which they live, we come to know that environment vicariously.
We are not given a detailed description but instead learn about it piece by piece as the characters move around and interact with it.
5. Optimize your first chapter
When a reader is willing to keep reading after the first few lines, that doesn’t mean they will read the entire book.
Avid readers are patient with an opening because they understand that sometimes persistence pays off. However, you’d have difficulty finding a reader willing to be patient past the first chapter.
After reading your first chapter, your reader knows if they want to continue reading. As such, make the first chapters enjoyable to catch the reader’s attention.
Open your story with conflicts or an inciting incident, but don’t try to solve them in the same chapter. Let the first chapter be an overall introduction to the book, and leave it open.
If possible, end your first chapter with a powerful cliffhanger.
6. Set the tone
Your voice is what sets you apart from other writers.
Find your unique voice, cultivate it, strengthen it, and use it to hook your reader. Novels that begin with basic sentences, such as voiceless, toneless descriptions, or exposition, are boring.
Readers are far more likely to feel the excitement and a desire to keep reading if they can feel a distinct attitude from the writer.
Consider a writer like Charles Bukowski – his voice isn’t for everybody, but those who like it tend to love it. It’s direct, unapologetic, and outright rude sometimes, but it makes for an exciting and immersive read.
Powerful opening lines in literature
The following list is some of literary fiction’s most famous and influential opening lines.
Consider how the opening lines below don’t feature much exposition. They don’t introduce the reader to the setting, and they don’t dive into a character’s background. They drop us right into a strange and intriguing situation and make us want to know more about what’s happening.
“I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.”A Heart So White, Javier Maria
‘The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.’The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
‘The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.’The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams
“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sur.”The Outside, Alberto Camus
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
Novel writing FAQs
Aside from the impactful words, you can use within your novel; you must also consider the length of your work and the number of pages your literary piece will be.
How long should a novel be?
No exact word count constitutes a novel, but there are some general numbers for which you should aim.
If this is your first time writing a novel, it’s wise to stay within the general word count.
More seasoned writers can use their literary license to break and play with those rules, but for the first time, it’s best to play it safe.
In general, novel writing utilizes between 50,000 and 100,000 words. A word count near that bracket’s center (75,000) is optimal.
Fewer than 50,000 words typically constitute a novella. More than 100,000 words may still be a novel, but a high word count is often found in non-fiction books.
Again, these are not hard and fast rules – your novel is your own creation, and if you want it to be 40,000 or 120,000 words, that’s up to you.
Still, there are some things to consider. Why will someone read your book? For entertainment.
As such, is it wise to have 120,000 words in your novel? Will that be too much for a casual read?
Consider that the third Lord of the Rings book – The Return of the King – is the shortest of the trilogy and clocks over 135,000 words.
Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, a genre known for its lengthy stories.
Unless one wants to commit to such a long book, a famous and legendary one at that – they’re unlikely to opt for such a high word count by a writer they may have never heard.
How many pages in a novel?
Again, there is no strict rule regarding how many pages your novel should be. Still, it helps to aim within a general bracket.
Typically, novels are between 200 and 300 pages. Exactly how many pages there should be in a novel may depend on how you choose to publish it.
If you approach a traditional publishing house with your manuscript, they may have a pre-existing minimum page count or page limit. If you choose to self-publish, those limits don’t apply.
There are two stages of ‘starting’ your novel and crafting a successful story. The first is starting to conceptualize it. That’s the stage that involves your premise and outline.
The second stage is starting to write it. You don’t need to write it chronologically at first, but by the time you submit your final draft, you should have your opening lines refined so that they hook the reader.
Work on and finish your manuscript in whatever way you see fit, but remember to check back in with your opening lines, paragraphs, or chapters and make sure it’s engaging and intriguing.