Beginning A Novel

In response to Gemma’s post below, this is my take on starting that novel.

First, I look at the story. What is it about? What is the main narrative thrust? What are you trying to say? You may think you are not trying to say anything, that it’s just a romance, or a tale of deep space betrayal, but every word you write is distinct from those of anyone else and it is sending out messages to the reader.

Once I have an idea of my main storyline, I decide what the most important events might be in the story. Now, for me I often have no idea what events might occur since the characters are dictating what happens and they are always very tight-mouthed at the beginning, until we get to know each other. So, I imagine an event that is plausible in my story and plunge right in without regard for timelines.

A few years ago, I did an MA in Film Studies and Screenwriting, not because I particularly want to write screenplays but because I love films and the mechanics of film making. Anyway, on the course a tutor castigated a screenplay I had written because it included flashbacks.

We had a big argument about that.

Without going into details, take a look at all the movies you like and see how many of them use the flashback device to create memorable moments. It will be a lot. The flashback is not a hackneyed device, no more than is writing in the present tense. It is just another method of telling a story.

So, if you have a strong storyline you might start halfway through it and use flashback to fill in the backstory. You can even use flash forward, of course. By using this method of story construction you immediately involve readers in the story and help them to become deeply involved in the fate of your characters – something that is essential for a successful piece of fiction writing.

If you want to use a linear progression with your storyline then that’s ok too. Anything is ok., as long as you are comfortable with it and it moves the story forward to the conclusion you desire.

I think it is also important to show your main character/s or your story premise within the first 10-30 pages of a full length novel. I get bored with a novel if I am being immersed in too much backstory, without character exposition. If possible, start with a bang, either in the storyline or in a character’s actions. I am immediately involved if I can see something unusual is happening in the first few pages.

If you are still blank with regard to getting started then write one single line about anything at all, related or not and kick off from there. That often works with short stories. My short story, BOMBER, begins with a motorbike accident and progresses into further action after a little character revelation. For me, that worked quite well.

And if you are still blank, then write the idea down on a piece of paper, put it in a drawer and forget it until it tries to get out of the drawer.

Then, you will have no problem starting it.

Here is another take on getting started by writer Holly Lisle. Good luck!

About J.D.Hughes

Disclaimer: The profile photo above was taken when I was (briefly) young and cool. Writer, director and recovered ne'er do well. Simply delightful, but quite unhinged supernatural thrillers, NORTHMAN & AND SOON THE SONG on Amazon and several short stories, all of which contain The Meaning of Life. Or one of them. New novel to be published mid 2020, but on current performance might be posthumously... Likes dogs and probably was one in a past life.
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3 Responses to Beginning A Novel

  1. Hedblom says:

    Regarding flashbacks – I agree with you. Playing with time like that is one of the most powerful devices in a linear thing like a story – it reduces the predicatability and opens up all sorts of possibilities in the realm of causation. It’d be a weird tale if EVERYTHING was contemporaneous or causal, like a domino run.

    Based on completely no scientific research I would say that 90% of excellent stories have some reference to the past…maybe just a character referring to something they once did or thought…..and what is a flashback except that, vignetted – the other end of the same spectrum of time-manipulation?

    Wasn’t Citizen Kane a film almost entirely composed of flashbacks? Yeah, that old film is obviously hackneyed…after all, hackneyed is a synonym for ‘old’ isn’t it? Your tutor was down with the kids. He’ll be disappointed that the flashback is still alive and kicking, and winning plaudits:


  2. Hedblom says:

    “A film needs a start, a middle and end, but not necessarily in that order” – Godard


  3. J.D.Hughes says:

    I knew there was something I liked about Godard.


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