July 25

26 comments

How to Begin Your Novel? (Part One)

Would you like a simple plan for the first twenty pages of your next novel?

If so, I made a video for you (below).

A lot of my readers are working on a novel. In our conversations over email, we’ve discussed the most common problems they and I have been facing.

“Plot” is a problem that came up a lot. “Planning” and “pacing” were also a very common complaint.

What problems do you have with your novel-writing?

Now, my goal is to be helpful, so I thought about how I teach novel-writing, and in particular how I advise aspiring novelists to get started.

I actually have a methodology for helping writers start their novels in a way that grab’s their reader’s attention. This framework also leads into a plan for narrating and plotting the entire manuscript.

I present that idea about novel-beginnings in this video.

It’s about eight minutes long. Watch it, and then tell me what other questions you have.

There is a lot more to say about these issues, but I worried the recording was already too long. So I’ll happily answer your questions in the comments, or by email.

Here it is: the “three appeals” approach to plotting, with examples from JK Rowling, Haruki Murakami, and Brandon Sanderson.

This is the first video in the series. Video #2 will explain the idea further, and talk about narration. Video #3 will talk about your protagonist, and how to complete the first fifty pages of your novel.

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    • Excellent! I’m really glad to hear that!

  • Phyllis at All Things Beautiful says:

    This is VERY helpful. Thank you so much. It makes planning seem more doable and starting a novel less scary.

    • Wow. That was my goal — I started to worry I was making things MORE complicated (than the hero’s journey). It means a lot that you found the video reassuring.

      I hope you’ll like the next two videos. They should make the starting process even clearer,

  • Thank you for the video. Made me rethink how to begin writing.

  • Interesting approach that clashes with the finding of a ‘body’ on the first page or so to grab the reader. Unless you nail the connection you risk losing the reader, especially in the ‘sampling world we operate in. Any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Dan — yeah, you’re completely right. This approach does clash with the “find a body on page one” idea.

      This approach argues that we first need to connect with the protagonist, and (probably) understand something about her situation, the setting, before we find a dead body (or similar moment of crisis).

      I do want to be clear: there are no real rules in art, and anything can work. There are also genres where finding a body on page one may make sense.

      My suspicion, though, is that 9 times out of 10, placing a huge dramatic scene on page one just alienates and confuses the reader. It certainly can be done. But if I were handing out advice, I would not recommend it to the typical writer.

      When I think about the novels that I admire, enjoy, and which have done well in the world, it’s rare that the first sentence opens up with a big dose of urgent conflict.

      The first sentence of Gone Girl, for instance, describes the shape of a woman’s head. The Great Gatsby opens with the protagonist looking back.

      I think of it like a date: on page one, the reader is wary, not willing to trust you with their full emotional involvement. You have to earn more trust before you can ask them to feel terrified for a fictional character.

      PS What do you mean by “sampling world” — I think I understand but I’m not sure!

  • Fiona Sparks says:

    I enjoyed your video and learned something – and I think I was doing this without knowing I until now. My method is sending out the chapters to 8 of my friends and getting their feedback on what grabbed them and held their attention. There are 8 characters in the novel and my 8 friends are having fun seeing what characteristics I have stolen from them to use for each of these characters. I’m having the time of my life saying stuff I wouldn’t have dreamed I would say in real life while entertaining my friends. And everyone knows they are reading the first draft, so they send me spelling corrections which is most helpful.
    I have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s going to happen the next time I peck on my computer, but it’s cathartic, so I’m encouraged to keep writing. thank you.

  • Thanks for the video – something I struggle with is having the MC meander a little in the initial phases of a story, I compulsively worry that a reader will get bored so tend to rush action.

    • I know that urge! But my worry, now, is that the reader is not ready for action, and rather than getting excited, she will back away.

  • I have two daughters aspiring to be writers; both have talent, definitely desire, and both have begun their books. I personally have been told I should write one as well, considering the diversity of incredible experiences in my life, though I would rather not write an autobiography. Consequently it is exciting to find you willing to share years of hard work with those of us fledglings with the passion for flying, but unsteady on new wings. Bless you for your generosity and inspiration!

  • Really enjoyed this alternative approach to writing the first chapter. It’s given me the push to write the first chapter of a novel I’ve been procrastinating over for three years! Thank you.

    • Daniel Wallace says:

      Three years… wow. why do you think the story has continued to haunt you?

  • I like this approach; and since i am trying to write a graphic novel I can dispense with all description and atmosphere as the images carry these two sides of things. But since the novel is about a particular philosopher’s life in which I hope to show the impact of his theory on existence by chosing particular events in his life, my story may not be able to follow suggestions. It also means that Im pretty tightly restricted to what actually happened in his biography, but by inventing a few fictional characters – “nobodies’ – and using their supporting adventures, I can introduce the three Greek appeals of Logos, Ethos and Pathos, the logical appeal which of necessity with a philosopher will be very central, but the ethical appeal is also very strong since he lived in turbulent times, and I have total freedom with the emotioinal appeal as biographies can only guess at what their subject felt; and with the help of my fictional support I can give full rein to the emotional side of the story. You may think that this is a bit weird, but Im going to give it a try. Thank you for your advice. Very helpful and instructive !.

  • Creig Sigurdson says:

    Thank you for the great setup on the logos , ethos, and pathos. You explained it so well. I really like that approach. Looking forward to the next video. Cheers.

  • Tim Seabrook says:

    The video was useful, looking at different ways to approach writing is always useful and anything that makes developing a story outline easier is always welcome. Thank you for sharing it

  • This video was really helpful and insightful. I learned a great deal with this method and appreciate your teaching. It has given me a boost of energy and excitement with my writing, so thankyou. Looking forward to more of your work.

    • Daniel Wallace says:

      That’s lovely to hear!

  • Great information. I never thought of Pathos, Logos, and Ethos being applied to fiction. Usually I think of persuasive techniques in speeches and commercials when those appeals come up. I appreciate the video.

  • Brilliant video. Thank you for sharing! Lots of useful information.

  • Fiona Nichols says:

    I’ve enjoyed beginning my novel with this in mind. Thanks for breaking it down in such an accessible way so we’re not overwhelmed by the enormity of writing a book!

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