filed under How To Write A Book.

It might make some people flinch to think this but: the first 3 chapters of your book are a sales document. Most agents and publishers only ask to see the first 3 chapters of your book when you submit. Based on those first 3 chapters, agents will decide to take you on or to pass you over and publishers will decide to accept or reject your book.

So it makes sense that you should spend more time on the first three chapters of your book than on any other part. To help with that, here are 10 tips about how to write the beginning of a book to give your book its best chance.

1. Introduce Your Main Characters

We must meet your main character and ideally your other key character, which could be a love interest, an important family member or friend, or the antagonist. The reader needs to know who to care for, whose side to be on, who they should invest their emotional energy with for the duration.

So, we need to meet the important people and we need to get a sense of the important relationships in the book.

2. Make Sure We Like and/or Understand Your Main Character

I’m not the kind of person who believes all main characters should be likeable. But, if you’re writing an unlikeable main character, you need to make sure we understand why the character is behaving as they do, or you need to make sure we are intrigued by them. Think of Nick in Gone Girl. I didn’t like him at the start of the book but I was really intrigued to find out just what he’d done.

3. Use Primarily Action and Dialogue

Philosophising, introspection, lengthy internal monologue, characters spending a lot of time by themselves aren’t the best devices for your beginning. It’s very hard to get to know a character through those devices.

Think about what happens when you meet people in real life. How do you get to like them, get to know them, get to understand them? By talking to them, by doing things with them i.e. through action and dialogue. You don’t ordinarily get the chance to see inside the head of someone you’ve just met, to their intimate thoughts.

It’s the same for characters. Get them to talk to us and do things. Don’t leave them in rooms by themselves where all they can do is think.

4. Establish Your Character’s Ordinary Life and Routine

We need to know the lie of the land before everything changes in the story, so that the change that happens to your character is impactful. But don’t over-labour this. A well chosen page of dialogue can easily set this up.

Think of Pride and Prejudice. We quickly see the silliness of Lizzie’s mother and most of her sisters and understand that Lizzie does not belong in such a home. We are also quickly made to understand about the entail on the estate, and thus that Lizzie must marry someone with money. But we also see Lizzie tell Jane that she will marry for love, thus setting up the central conflict of the story. This is the lie of the land for Lizzie, until Mr Darcy appears – the moment of change.

The key here is to be brief. If you spend too much time on the ordinary and the every day with no moment of change, the reader will become bored.

How to Write the Beginning of Your Book: 10 Things Your Beginning Should Do

5. Give A Hint of Some Dissatisfaction

This links to the last step. The set up of the ordinary course of your character’s life is likely to be more interesting if you show us a hint of dissatisfaction, or a latent need or desire, or an inkling that something is missing from your character’s life.

Your character might not know exactly what they’re missing, but they will know what parts of their life are boring or irritating or miserable or hurtful or repressed.

6. An Inciting Incident

An Inciting Incident is the event that sets your story in motion. It is the thing that disrupts your character’s ordinary life i.e. the arrival of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley.

The Inciting Incident helps your character understand that something is missing from their life and what a possible solution to that might be – they might not be right about the solution of course at this point of the narrative. It also sets in motion the events that lead up to the Crisis; if the Inciting Incident didn’t happen, the Crisis moment in your story wouldn’t happen either.

7. Begin a Journey

The Inciting Incident should cause your character to react – to do something that is out of the ordinary. They then embark on their journey. The plot of your book really kicks in here. The inciting incident causes an event, which causes the next event etc, all the way to the crisis moment.

8. Make the Reader Curious

Your story should pose some questions that the reader wants answered. They will keep reading to find the answer. For instance, in Gone Girl, the reader wants to know, what Nick is lying about, is he guilty, what is he guilty of, what has happened to Amy?

You need to establish the key dramatic questions that the story spends its whole length answering.

9. Establish the Voice of the Story

You need to show the reader that you have control of the narrative right from the outset. Establishing the voice of your story and the character will help you to do this.

Everything flows from the first three chapters so if the voice isn’t right here, it never will be. You need to give the reader a sense of your authority – that you have command over the story and the events and the structure. The reader needs to trust that you will show us a story worth reading.

10. Sell Your Book

When you’re redrafting, you should read your first three chapters with their sales-worthiness in mind at least once. Are they the best first three chapters you can possibly give your book?

Check all your firsts. Is the first line of your book the best first line? What about your first paragraph? First chapter? First line of next chapter?

My Draft Beginnings

One of my readers asked if they could see a section from the first draft of one of my books compared to the published version. And I thought it would be a great opportunity to show you the beginning of If I Should Lose You in draft form and in its published form so you can see how I took into account these rules.

Here’s the draft beginning of If I Should Lose You. Read at your own risk! Writers don’t normally put their drafts out there but what the hell. It’s a draft. You understand that. And I think it’s really interesting to see how much I wasn’t thinking of these rules in my first draft because that draft is all about getting the story down for me.

Then in redrafting, I start to think about these rules. And you can see the final, published beginning of If I Should Lose You here, and note how much it’s changed, and why. I won’t analyse it for you because I know you’re all capable of doing that yourself. But let me know in the comments which rules I didn’t follow in my first draft and how I fixed them in the final version.

Are these rules helpful? Do you have your own rules? And have I missed anything that you don’t like to see in the beginning of a book?

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30 Responses to “How to Write the Beginning of a Book: 10 Things Your Beginning Should Do”

  1. annabelsmith

    This post could not have come at a better time because I’m just starting my brand new book and I’d sort of forgotten how hard the beginning can be!

    • Natasha Lester

      I know! My beginnings changed hugely in both my first and second books by the time they were published. The book I’ve just finished has had a much more stable beginning – the same basic events, but just more fleshing out of character and emotion.

    • Natalie Snelson

      Me too. I went through about seventeen beginning sentences before I found the one I liked. This was extremely helpful.

  2. Rachel H

    I’m completely gobsmacked at how different these two pieces are. As I don’t yet possess a complete first draft, I haven’t been bombarding myself with information about re-drafting. Looking at your first draft and the polished version, I clearly have a lot to learn!

    • Natasha Lester

      They are different, aren’t they? That’s why I thought they might be good to share. The first draft was much too introspective, too much inside my character’s head and with not enough action. I needed to write all that stuff to get to know my character but the reader doesn’t need to read it at that point in the story. They need to be drawn in to the life of my character by seeing what she says and does and feels. Good luck with yours!

  3. Karen

    Thanks for being brave, Natasha, and sharing your draft! I like how you have linked all the things beginnings should have. It makes so much sense that they they are all connected, but yet it is so difficult to do …

    • Natasha Lester

      It is hard to do, especially in a first draft. I still make all of these mistakes but at least I’m more alert now to spotting them when I’m redrafting and then fixing them.

  4. andria101

    I love this. I also love the 10 things not to do. Both posts really helped me form my thought process better. You are very talented, and I only hope to obtain a portion of the talent you have. I have always dreamed of writing, but I never really intended on doing anything with it until recently. I have always been more set on my dream of becoming a teacher. However, writing has become more of a goal/dream for me. I began a blog, and started writing more. I enjoy it so much. I do want to ask a question, for you or anyone one else that wants to respond, do you believe a young writer has a chance to have something published if they are dedicated and do the work to make something out of their talent? I know I have a long way to go, and I am educating myself as much as possible, but I keep having this voice of doubt telling me I have no chance of something being published so there is no point. I have started writing a book, it is still in the planning process, but I would love for it to go somewhere. I just wanted to ask around to more experienced writers to see if they thought there was a chance for me. Thank you for what you do. I haven’t yet read your draft, but I plan on it. I know it took a lot of courage to post, so I do appreciate that so much. You are such a great person, to try and help us less experienced writers as you are.

    • Natasha Lester

      Thank you for your lovely feedback! And yes, I absolutely do believe that a committed writer has every chance of publishing a book if they learn their craft, commit to writing, educate themselves about the publishing industry and read a lot. I was just like you not all that long ago; I began writing my first book in 2005 and it was published in 2010 after many rejections, much revising and a lot of angst. So if I can do it, then other writers certainly can too. Best of luck with it.

  5. kimaro

    Thank you so much for this article. I often feel like I am the worst writer on the planet because I have the tendency to believe the quality of real writers’ first draft to be decently close to their final product. I also enjoy the main points you have made about what elements are crucial in the beginning of a book. As a beginner, it is great to have a concise reference to look back upon when tweaking my story. Thanks!

    • Natasha Lester

      I can definitely assure you that first drafts often bear very little resemblance to the final product! many writers talk about the vomit draft or the shitty first draft, which is all about getting down the story and working out what the story is. So don’t feel as if you have to be a perfectionist in that first draft. Best of luck with it!

  6. Victoria MIzen

    Thank you for the examples Natasha. I’ve been told all those things in lectures, but actually seeing how you’ve put them into practice is so much more helpful. If only I could master a smidgin of your talent.

    • Natasha Lester

      Pleasure Victoria! And thank you for your lovely words. I’m not sure about my talent, but I know I have many years of dedication to writing and I learn more every time I write a book!

  7. Lizzie Mayhem

    After browsing Pinterest for hours, I finally found an article that helped me write the beginning of my book.

  8. Felicia Reevers

    I’ve spent the last couple of weeks prepping and planning for my second attempt at NaNoWriMo next month. While I feel MILES ahead of where I was in the process a year ago, I was still totally lost on how to begin the book. After reading your article and checklist, I took a deep breath. Things started falling into place almost faster than I could write them down. Thank you!

    (And thank you for sharing your first draft vs. the published product. This gives me hope! LOL! Subscribed to your email updates!)

  9. hannah

    This is very helpful. I would like to know if you can start but telling about whats going on. I was told to start with the character description first but can you start with the environment the character is living in?

    • Natasha Lester

      I think the most important thing is to start with the story. The story will drive everything else, and will allow you to introduce the character and the environment. I hope that helps!

  10. Jodi Gibson

    Thank you for again sharing your wisdom Natasha, and for being so generous in sharing your draft compared to the published version. Editing is my least favourite part of writing at the moment as it’s hard to change so much. It need to remind myself that change is for the better.

    • Natasha Lester

      It is heartbreaking having to change things that you’ve worked so hard to write. I’ve just made substantial changes to the first 100 pages of my 2017 book, but then I just had an idea which will cause me to make even more substantial changes to it, which I’m both dreading, because it’s hard work, and loving, because I know it will make it better. Good luck with yours.

  11. Riley

    I have a question…. How do you start writing the first line in a novel???? That is what I am stuck on in my story. I just don’t know how to start.
    Oh, and thank you for giving this amazing advice!! It really helped SOOO much!!!

  12. ed

    trenchant – forwarding to a friend starting out – helpful advice to me, after many years of re-writing, etc. consider me a fan~



  1.  if I should lose you – Natasha Lester – Review #aww2014 | Dreaming Awake

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