Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Where to start?

The opening scene of your novel should really be the opening scene. A novel is a sudden window opened to let us watch an arc of action from its initial to its closing phase. If you open the window too early, your readers have to drum their mental fingers waiting for the action to start. Open the window too late, and you'll find yourself desperately filling in with flashbacks and infodumps.

How do you know what action is the initial action? What is your story about? A young girl, suffocated by small-town life, deciding to head for the big city? Or a businessman at the end of his tether learning that, on top of everything else, he has cancer? Where do you start telling that story?

The temptation all too often is to begin by describing the people and setting for your readers, to soften us up so we'll understand the subsequent behaviour of your characters. Thus you have the young woman rant to a friend about the constrictions on her life, you show us the businessman's hectic treadmill existence for two dozen pages to make sure that we soak up its horror, in short, you spell everything out for us. You do this because you are anxious that we, the readers, won't understand, that we need to be conked over the head until we get it, that we are too narratively na´ve to grasp what's going on unless it's counted out for us in baby language.

Don't be so scared! We will understand your young woman if we see her suddenly strip off her waitress's apron, announce, 'I ain't takin' another single minute of this,' grab her day's wages and head for the Greyhound terminal, where she phones her clinging mother, her no-hope boyfriend, and is heading for Manhattan within the hour. Here is a woman throwing off her shackles. Later, in Manhattan, as you show her tentatively spreading her wings, we will grasp what her earlier life must have been like with greater poignancy than any amount of introductory explication could have revealed.

In the same way, you can show the businessman (in one short paragraph) typing desperately on his laptop in the doctor's waiting room, pleading on his mobile with his creditors, until he's called in and, on hearing the doctor's gentle life-sentence, suddenly and for the first time becoming absolutely still. His initial frenzy and his unaccustomed quiet will reveal more about how he got to that doctor's office than pages of pre-digested information. In addition, the narrative ball will already be rolling. We readers won't have to wait for the action to start: it's started!

What is that decision, what is that sudden alteration of circumstance, that changes everything? What is that first domino? Tell yourself what your story is about: 'It's about a young woman trapped in a small town who escapes to become a famous actress.' Your first active verb is 'escapes'. That gives you your opening scene. She escapes. Or your story line could be: 'A businessman at the end of his tether learns he has cancer and becomes a seeker after spiritual truth.' The first active verb is 'learns'. That's where your story starts: in the doctor's office. Or 'A wild young man, rebelling against being tamed, lights out for adventure.' The active verb is 'lights out' and that what Huckleberry Finn does, to his own and literature's glory.

Cut to the action, but don't be tempted to start the book with a showy bang unless that showy bang is the initial action from which all other action flows. If you open with an epic space battle and then have to spend pages telling us how everybody got there, your flashback will brake your narrative to a stop and your first scene will bounce off your vehicle like a fancy hubcap, revealed for the unecessary bit fo tin it is. The key is: from which all other action flows. The first scene is the first domino. The second domino has to be right behind it. That inexorably tumbling line is your story, action begetting action until all are spent.

Your job, on page one, is to open the narrative window at the exact moment of first tumble. This doesn't have to be in the very first line, but it does have to be the very first scene. If your first thousand words don't contain the initial action, rewrite until they do. That's where your story begins. That's where to start.