How do you start a novel? Every writer knows that each novel should include a definite beginning, middle, and end. But did you know those are also your starting options?
Usually I think of a sentence that seems like the beginning of a novel and it grows from there. This sunrise method works well for exploratory fiction, when you write to discover what you want to write. It’s been my standard operating procedure during most of the Novembers I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). But one year, I saw a scene in my mind and found myself writing to and from it.
I felt I was in good company on the scene start because C.S. Lewis claimed each of his Narnia and Space Trilogy books began with images in his mind, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.
Before Lewis describes this scene, however, he writes this:
The Editor has asked me to tell you how I came to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will try, but you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books. This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a book is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it. In fact, that might stop the works; just as, if you start thinking about how you tie your tie, the next thing is that you find you can’t tie it. And afterwards, when the story is finished, he has forgotten a good deal of what writing it was like (p. 53, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature).
Wise words that make me wonder about analyzing at the expense of writing. But Lewis goes on to describe how he found his way from that image, and concludes:
Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it? (p. 54, On Stories).
The initial success and timeless character of the fantasies by Lewis demonstrate beyond doubt that a story can start with an image in the middle of the tale. But there’s another way a narrative may begin in the middle.
I met Nick Harrison while attending a mentoring retreat some years ago near Kansas City. He was mentoring authors in a nonfiction group and I was in the children’s fiction group, but we chatted a time or two. Yesterday Harrison promoted on his blog a new book by James Scott Bell, award winning suspense author and bestselling writing coach. Bell’s recently-released title is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.
A plotter figures out exactly where the story is going and how it will get there. A pantser sits at the keyboard and lets the story fly from fingertips, writing (as the cliche proclaims) by seat of pants.
According to Harrison, Bell advocates finding the “magic moment” that will lead to the protagonist’s change, then working your way toward that point and past it to the eventual final transformation. This seems like a helpful way to focus on the primary plot, and this high noon method intrigues me.
But the sunset method also piques my interest. Did you know books can start at the end?
Regular readers may recall that I attended the fiction workshop at Glen West last summer (here’s a reflection) At one point during that amazing class, Larry Woiwode shared he lately starts at the end and writes his way to it.
I’ve never begun with the conclusion, but I once had a near-end experience. You can read about that here. I find Woiwode’s method a particularly fascinating, and possibly unique, concept.
How do you start your novel? From the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? You may have more starting options than you thought.