Getting To Chapter One

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I once saw a comment online that my younger self could really relate to:

“The problem I have is beginning my novel. I have written backstory, general ideas, characters and plot points (hell, I even drew a map!) for the past two years and I still can’t figure out how I should start my story. Help?”

There’s something about the moment when you stare at a blank piece of paper. Where do you begin? All the planning in the world won’t change the fact that, sooner or later, you have to write the opening line of your novel.

Here are a few methods I’ve employed to get past that block.

1. Write crap, delete it later.

A good opening line can hook in the reader, creating a mystery that keeps them reading because they want to know what happened. You can spend a very long time on crafting the perfect opening line. The thing is, it’s only the first line. You’ve got thousands more still to do.

I used to struggle to write opening lines. Actually, I still do. These days I just do something a little different. I write an opening line that roughly sets the scene, no matter how clunky or dreadful, and then I move on to the rest of the chapter.

Write a crappy opening line. To hell with it. Just write something that gets you started. In these modern days of word processing software and the backspace key, we can change it later.

Opening lines are hard to write. Do yourself a favour – throw something temporary down and come back to it later. It’s a lot easier to write a killer opening line when you have the rest of the novel to write it for.

2. Don’t start at the beginning.

There’s no reason you need to start at chapter 1, especially if you have an outline of what happens when. If that first chapter is too difficult, try chapter 2. You can write the opening scenes later, when you’ve built up some momentum.

One side effect of this approach is that you may decide you prefer starting in the middle! It can be very effective, especially if your story starts pretty slowly, to begin with a dramatic moment and recap what led there in flashback.

3. Try a new angle.

One simple trick is to change your approach. Switch to a new narrator, or start with a diary entry or newspaper report. Or maybe your narrator is telling this part from the future.

We can get stuck in one mode sometimes. Even if you switch back to your former style afterwards, even if you end up ditching this new angle entirely, it will give you an opening.

One word of warning – be careful with tense. If you start switching between past and present tense, it could cause you (and possibly your readers) a fair few headaches. It can be hard to keep track and you could find yourself switching tense without meaning to in the middle of a chapter. It’s generally best to stick with one tense and vary your narrators, time periods and other areas instead.

4. Are you trying to write the wrong thing?

Sometimes a scene simply doesn’t work. There’s no good way to start because there’s simply no good way to write it. If all else fails, take a step back and look at the scene itself. Is it realistic? Would your characters really do what you want them to?

Sometimes a simple change is all it takes to salvage a broken scene. If a scene simply doesn’t work, the only option is to drop it and amend the rest of your plot to compensate.

5. Take a break!

Finally, if a project is causing you grief, just put it to one side for a while. Work on something else. Write gibberish if you wish. Come back to your main project fresh, and you may suddenly find the block has gone and it’s obvious how to proceed.

Whatever approach works for you, good luck and keep writing!

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