Start Here: 3 Things You Need To Do At The Beginning Of Your Novel


An inciting moment is the moment of change for your character. It can be positive or negative, but it must be big enough that it forces him, or her, to act and to deal with the situation. This can be as big as a tank driving into the living room or as subtle as a discomforting sentence.

In your opening scene you should do three things:

  1. Orientate the reader: Get your reader orientated quickly. Tell us where we are and what is going on. You can be ambiguous, but do not confuse us.
  2. Introduce the characters: Who is there? Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. I want to know what is happening, but most of all I want to know to whom it is happening.
  3. Show the relevance: Once I know where I am and what is going on you have to keep me interested. You have to make me ask questions.

In the The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh starts off by setting her protagonist’s bed on fire. What do I learn?

  • Where are we? She is in a group home.
  • Who is she? She has dreamt of fire for the last eight years. She has been in the foster-care system almost all her life. She is angry and violent. She knows about flowers.
  • Moment of change: It is her 18th birthday so she must leave the home.

In Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, our protagonist is running in Central Park at 2am when he sees a beautiful ghost-like woman in a red coat who seems to be following him. He is deeply unhappy and he blames Cordova. What do I learn?

  • Where are we? In Central Park, New York in the early hours of the morning.
  • Who is he? He is a journalist whose life has fallen apart because of a film director named Cordova. Immediately I want to know who Cordova is.
  • Moment of change: He is shocked out of his apathy and inertia by this chilling Cordova-like incident.

Five things you should not include at the beginning:

  1. Back story: You have to weave this in as the story progresses. It is very important to know the details, but it is more important to know what to leave out and where to use it.
  2. Flashbacks: This is basically back story. Save it for later and use it only if it is really important.
  3. Description: Weather, long descriptive passages.
  4. Prologues: Most of the time you do not need a prologue. It must not detract from your opening scene in any way. It can be used to bridge a time gap or if it is a document that is related to the story or if you use a viewpoint that isn’t used again.
  5. Whatever you do don’t start at the beginning.

For more examples of inciting moments and information on why you need backstory read my post from last week: The Character Biography.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Mia Botha

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