I'm preparing to begin my new work-in-progress, which I've codenamed Tornado C. (The actual novel has nothing to do with tornadoes.) I've especially spent a long time planning out the beginning.
But the question has to be asked: what does it take to begin a novel? How should it start out?
There are two ways to answer this: in the writing or in the revision. People like me write high-quality first drafts. Others write painfully rough drafts and edit them into perfection. However you write it, there are a few things you need to know about beginning a novel.
Novels need to start out at the place that begins the conflict of the entire novel. It's the first domino that falls, causing a chain effect until we reach the end of the novel, and there's no dominoes left standing. Daniel Schwabauer calls it "The Inciting Incident".
Once I have that worked out, I usually ask myself three questions. All of these questions need to be answered at one point or another, whether during the writing or during the revision.
1) How can I inform the reader of the main character's background without outright "telling" it?
Background is an important aspect to the story. We need to know who we're supposed to root for. If we don't know our main character, will we care if he breaks his neck?
Of course not. So we need to inform the reader who our main character is. But more importantly, we need to make the reader CARE about the protagonist.
BUT: we need to be very careful not to "tell". The background dump is one of the worst pits a writer could fall into. It slows down the story and alienates the reader, and kills the potential that the first scene might have had.
2) How can I hook the reader?
You don't have to have a murder scene right at the beginning to hook the reader. In fact, you only need one thing to get the reader interested in the story.
All beginnings have one thing in common: a question. If your reader is asking questions, then chances are, they'll want to keep reading. In Tornado C, for instance, the reader is asking questions like, "What did the protagonist do to be imprisoned? Why does everyone hate him? What's going on? What is this war that keeps cropping up?"
Withholding crucial information—such as the reason for my character's imprisionment—is a wonderful way to keep the reader turning the pages. However, the information must be told sometime, or the reader won't be happy. If my readers are wondering why there's a war going on, and I never tell them, question will eventually fizzle out and my reader will be left confused and rather angry.
3) How can I use the "inciting incident" to propel the reader into the rest of the novel?
Writing a fantastic first scene and then leaving the reader hanging is a big no-no. Your first scene must be part of the story unfolding. More than that, it should PROPEL the rest of the story. Like I said earlier, the beginning is the first domino. The first scene is the pebble that starts an avalanche. If you give the reader a promising novel in the first scene and then the first scene has nothing to do with the general plot, the reader feels cheated.
4) How can I connect the beginning to the end?
Jeff Gerke calls this method "circularity". If your beginning has nothing to do with your end, then it'll be pretty much meaningless. But connecting the beginning to the end is a powerful method to create emotion in your reader.
In The War Horn, I used this quite a bit. The final scene takes place in the same place as the first scene, at the same time. The place itself hadn't changed, but that makes my main character realize that HE was the one who had changed. In the last few paragraphs, I drew parallels from the beginning to the end that showed the character change that had happened within my protagonist.
From what I've heard from readers, this scene satisfied. It tied up the loose ends and gave the reader a chance to catch their breath and reflect on what had happened. And it moved them. The reader had gone in a full circle, and yet, things had changed, but in a good way, even though so many painful things had happened.
So, looking at the beginning scene, I always try to find a way to connect the end to the beginning. The beginning is the place where you sow the seeds of emotion that you'll reap at the end.
What sort of methods do you use in creating your beginning scene? Have you found anything in published novels that you find really works?