So how can you increase your chances?
All good fiction is about disturbance to a character’s inner and outer life. A novel should begin with a threat to the status quo.
In analyzing student work, I've found that too often the writer begins his novel with backstory, the events that happen before the action starts. If you're struggling with where to start your novel, consider Dwight Swain's advice, "Start on the day that's different." (Swain is the author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, an old but helpful book on the writing craft.)
Begin with the inciting incident, the event that jolts your protagonist out of her ordinary world. The hook and the inciting incident should occur at the same time or within close proximity. Either way the protagonist must react soon after. She may try to ignore the call to action at first but must eventually accept it or you have no story.
The inciting incident should affect the protagonist (and hopefully the reader) emotionally. It defines her goals or needs and sets the plot in motion. Ideally, it introduces a question that the reader wants the answer to. If it applies to the entire novel, we call it the central dramatic question. If it's not the CDR, it should be a significant story question that arouses the reader's curiosity. The CDR should become apparent relatively soon after the opening so the reader has a map to follow.
The most effective story is usually a simple one. The plot traces the events of how your protagonist deals with the significant, usually threatening or disturbing, changes in her life. External changes lead to internal ones. In the same way that traumatic events transform us, they should change your protagonist. By the end of the novel, the protagonist should be a different person than she was when the book began.
Here's how I started my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in:
I wasn’t there when they dug up the bones at the old drive-in theater, but I heard about them within the hour. In a small town, word travels like heat lightning across a parched summer sky. Irma Schmidt phoned Aunt Bliss and delivered the news with such volume that her voice carried across the kitchen to where I was sitting.
After hanging up the receiver, Aunt Bliss peered at me through her thick bifocals. "With all those farms around there, they could be the bones of some animal."
I picked up the coffee mug, drained it, then set it on the worn Formica table. "They could be."
Pursing her lips, she stared hard at me. "I know what you’re thinking, but more than one person died that summer.”
How does this inciting incident hook the reader? First of all, it starts in media res, which means in the middle of things. The protagonist and her aunt are having an ordinary day, conversing and drinking coffee when the phone call comes and upsets the status quo. It also introduces the story question, "Whose bones are in that grave?" That's the central dramatic question that isn't answered until the final pages of the novel.
Capture readers’ interest with a striking image. It will ground us and establish the novel's tone. Here's my all- time favorite opening to a novel. It's from Girls by Frederick Busch.
We started clearing the field with shovels and buckets and of course our cupped gloved hands. The idea was to not break any frozen parts of her away.
If that doesn't affect you emotionally and ask a powerful question, you must be catatonic.
Here's a dynamite opening from The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese— the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.’ He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.
Here's another terrific if terrifying beginning from Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, walls were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
What is the darkness within? How is Hill House not sane? Good story questions. This opening clearly and dramatically sets the tone for a horror story.
Look at the beginning of your own novel. Does it introduce at least one story question? Will it affect the reader emotionally? Does it set the tone for your novel?Does it entice your reader to turn the page? If it doesn't, change it. Rewrite it until it does.
Next time, I'll write about how not to begin a novel.