Writing a Novel: Begin It With A Bullet Or A Sunrise?

When you’re writing a novel, do you begin at the beginning? We discussed our favorite strategies for starting a novel at a recent writers’ group meeting.

Most authors in the group said they write chronologically: they began at the beginning and write to the end.

Several authors however wrote according to their inspiration. “Stepping stones,” an author said. “I look at scenes as stepping stones. In my first draft, I write scenes as inspiration arrives. Never chronologically.”

Writing a novel: try writing the beginning later

Ultimately, you write as you prefer. You may even change how you write from novel to novel.

Some of our authors who are pantsers write chronologically, but know that they’ll rewrite their novel’s first scene later. I do this.

The biggest discussion that evening however was between the authors who like to start with a bang, in the middle of the action, and the others: those authors who like to set the mood and introduce a character first.

Let’s look at two strategies for beginning your novel.

Will you begin with a bullet or a sunrise?

Start your novel with a bullet/ bang

In the mystery, thriller, and suspense genres, authors like to start fast. Something bad has happened, is happening, or will happen at any moment.

Here’s Jane Harper’s beginning paragraph of her mystery novel, The Dry:

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

Ms Harper’s beginning scene of The Dry, the prologue, is masterful. Slowly, the reader becomes horrified as he realizes there are three bodies, not just one. Few mystery readers will be able to resist the compulsion to keep reading.

After the prologue, Chapter One begins with a funeral scene; the main character is introduced.

If you’re an author who feels that you need to orient readers before tackling major happenings, prologues might work for you. The reader’s drawn in quickly. Then the pace slows, and you have time to introduce your characters.

With a prologue, you get two beginnings for the price of one, so to speak.

Begin your novel slowly, with an evocative beginning

Unlike the bullet beginning, the sunrise beginning is slow and evocative.

Sophie Kinsella’s chick lit novel, Can You Keep A Secret?, begins with the main character’s thoughts, stream of consciousness-style:

Of course I have secrets. Of course I do. Everyone has a few secrets. It’s completely normal. I’m sure I don’t have any more than anybody else.

This type of beginning is common in women’s fiction, especially chick lit and romantic comedy. The opening’s goal is to win over the reader, so that she empathizes with the main character.

Helen Fielding made this style of writing hugely popular when she released Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996. That novel kicked off the entire chick lit genre.

Many authors of women’s fiction and romance love this style because it seems simple. It’s not. It’s challenging to win a reader’s empathy.

Several authors in our group said they couldn’t read New Adult, romantic comedy and similar genres because this style is so intimate and hard to do well.

Hit a false note and empathy instantly turns into annoyance.

When you’re writing a novel, beginnings are hard

Several authors in our group admitted that when they’re writing a novel, writing beginnings takes more time and rewriting than anything else.

Good luck with your novel’s opening scene. 🙂


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