The hardest part of writing a novel is the opening. As attention spans shrink and a million distractions pull at our minds, it’s harder than ever to get people to sit still long enough to read to the end of the first page, let alone the first paragraph. An average novel is between 80,000 to 100,000 words, so reading a novel will take some time. (Writing one takes even longer!) Many would rather watch the movie version of a story instead – two hours and you’re done.
If you want readers to stick with your novel and read to the end, you must grab their attention right from the start. Opening lines, and the first page, are crucial.
There are four basic ways of starting your novel:
- Reportage or Journal Entry
Opening your novel with a descriptive passage establishes setting and creates atmosphere. But because nothing is happening and there are no characters, it can be seen as slow. Many readers skip the description and seek out dialogue and characters in action, so if you choose to start your novel like this, make sure it’s evocative and captivating. Here’s a couple of excellent examples:
“We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter.” – Chocolat by Joanne Harris
“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.” – The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Reportage or Journal Entry
Opening with a news item, journal entry or some other kind of reportage can create a bold start, but it’s tricky to pull off and could lead to confusion. It can also create distance and make it harder for the reader to get into the story. You’ll still have to follow it with something that hooks the reader.
Carrie by Stephen King is a good example. It begins with a report in a local paper about a bizarre incident, and then jumps straight into the infamous shower scene:
“News item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, August 19, 1966:
RAIN OF STONES REPORTED
It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. Mrs White, a widow, lives with her three-year old daughter, Carietta. Mrs White could not be reached for comment.
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at a subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again.”
Here’s another example from Enlightenment for Idiots by Anne Cushman, about a woman searching for enlightenment through yoga. It starts with a description of yoga before moving onto the narrative of the book. Both the yoga description and the first narrative line beautifully encapsulate the premise and themes of the novel:
“Step on your mat. Let a river of breath sweep your arms overhead and then fold you forward, your spine pouring from your pelvis in a waterfall of muscle and bone. Lie on your back with the soles of your feet together and your knees winged out to the side, your tender belly exposed. Curl on the floor in a foetal position, a seed under frozen earth. Each of these yoga poses will lead inevitably to another, each one blossoming out of the one before in a rippling wave. So where you end up will be, in some way, bound to the place you started. Don’t try to separate beginnings from endings. Your last pose will have your first pose buried within it, if you look deeply enough.
When my mother was six months pregnant with me, my father walked out the door and never came back.”
Opening your novel with the protagonist or another character that’s important to the story creates a direct line to the reader’s imagination and gives them someone to identify with. If you make the character interesting or unusual it draws the reader into the story and keeps them reading to find out more.
“Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness. … As usual Harry is wearing a grubby white suit, and as he lies there, quite dead, his blue braces are visible to all the world and anyone can see that he has sown on one of those buttons himself rather than ask his wife.” – Bliss by Peter Carey
“I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of… slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him any more, I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone.” – How to be Good by Nick Hornby
Starting with action means you jump straight into the middle of a character in motion – somebody doing something. The reader doesn’t even need to know who the character is at this stage. Lack of backstory and context will create mystery and draw the reader in. They keep reading because they want to find out what’s going on.
“A flash of light filled his skull as it struck the rock floor. Then darkness. He was dimly aware of the heavy oak door banging shut behind him and a thick batten sliding through iron hasps. For a while he lay where he’d been thrown, listening to the pounding of his pulse and the mournful wind close by.” – Sanctus by Simon Toyne
Or you can start with characters speaking to each other by jumping into the middle of a conversation. Make sure your dialogue zings and your characters say interesting things. The following is a great opening for a young adult novel. The story is set on an another planet where things don’t work quite the way you expect:
“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.
‘Need a poo, Todd.’
‘Shut up, Manchee.’
‘Poo. Poo, Todd.’
‘I said shut it.’
We’re walking across the wild fields south-east of town, those ones that slope down to the river and head on towards the swamp. Ben’s sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he’s made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss’s good side and so suddenly there’s this brand new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn’t have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here’s a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don’t want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he’s got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?
‘Poo,’ Manchee barks quietly to himself. ‘Poo, poo, poo.’
‘Just have yer stupid poo and quit yapping about it.’” – The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
A Word of Warning
One last piece of advice for anyone thinking of writing a novel. Starting your story is one thing, but what happens once it’s finished? Perhaps unpublished novelists can take solace in the following warning – another great opening from The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon:
“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”
What’s your favourite opening to a novel? Share your lines below…