Stick the opening to keep people turning the pages of your novel.
Take a moment to consider the importance of your opening sentences.
After all, if the first few lines in this post don’t grab your attention, you’ll probably ‘X’ right out of it without another thought — right?
The same goes for books. The first few pages of a book are do-or-die: get it right, and readers will be intrigued enough to stick around for more. Get it wrong, and they’ll skedaddle right outta there. If the vast majority of readers start judging a book by its cover, then they make their final rulings by the book’s opening scenes.
Especially for writers who are off to the NaNoWriMo races right now, it’s more crucial than ever to know how to put your best foot forward with your novel. Here are seven steps that will help you pull off the perfect opening scenes.
Step 1: Think about your novel as a whole
Imagine yourself as a painter in front of a blank canvas. You may not be able to envision the entire composition yet! But you should know roughly when to reach for yellow paint, or blue.
This is exactly the kind of grip you want to get on your novel before you begin. In other words: you don’t need to plan out every single plot point in your book before you start writing. But you should start seriously thinking about how you want the sum of the parts to come across. This way, you’ll be able to write an opening that effectively sets the tone for the rest of your book.
To make sure that you’re striking this perfect tone right from the onset, ask yourself:
- What genre am I writing? A fast-paced spy thriller with a shootout in every other chapter, for example, might jump into an action sequence right off the bat.
- What kinds of expectations do I want to set? For example, the opening chapter of “Pride and Prejudice” tells the reader to expect a witty comedy of manners through the strength and acuity of Jane Austen’s prose and dialogue.
Step 2: Pick a point of view
So now you know the tone you want to strike in your novel. How are you going to execute it?
A big part of that execution will come down to three words: point of view. Broadly speaking, there are four major types of POV:
- First person uses “I” and “we” pronouns (e.g., “The Hunger Games” and “Huckleberry Finn”).
- Second person uses the “you” pronoun (e.g., “Bright Lights, Big City” and “The Fifth Season”).
- Omniscient third person uses third-person pronouns such as “he” and “she” to relate the story as an all-knowing narrator (e.g., “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”).
- Limited third person uses third-person pronouns like “he” and she” to relate the story from a single character’s perspective (e.g., “The Giver” and “I Am Legend”).
Each POV has its strengths and weaknesses. (To see it all put in action, you can also check out the POV infographic in this post.) But just remember: no matter what, the POV you pick should serve the needs of your story.
Are you writing a quirky, relatable YA novel? Definitely consider first-person narration so that readers can get to know your utterly unique protagonist up close and personal. But if you want to conduct multiple character studies in your literary novel, then third person omniscient — which lets the reader slip into the minds of many characters — is probably the way to go.
Step 3: Craft a killer opening line
Now that you’ve established the tone and POV for your book’s opening, you’ve arrived at the fun part! This is where you get to do what you do best: put pen to paper and write your first sentence.
Let’s just clear up one thing first: there’s no single formula to crafting an awesome opening sentence. You can disconcert the reader, just as George Orwell did in “1984”...
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
… or begin with a commanding voice, similar to Herman Melville (this is where the tone that you considered in the first step will come into play)…
Call me Ishmael.
… or appeal to the reader’s innate sense of curiosity, as Gabriel García Márquez did in “100 Years of Solitude”…
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
… or compellingly, poetically set the scene, like Toni Morrison:
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.
If you get stuck, just know that you’re not alone. Here’s what John Steinbeck once said about first sentences: “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them.”
But you can (and should) experiment until your opening sentence rings true to you. For those who may still be struggling, turn to T. C. Boyle’s advice for writing a memorable opening sentence: “The first lines are provocative, I suppose, because they are meant not simply to provoke the reader but to provoke the writer—in this instance, me—to forge on.” In a nutshell: in order to engage readers, you must first attempt to engage yourself.
Step 4: Bring out the characters
As Shakespeare once said, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” And if your book is a small stage of its own, you’ll want to start bringing out your cast of players fairly early.
This is going to be the first time that your audience meets your characters, so remember: first impressions are important! Your character development stems from these first few moments, so make them count.
Let’s quickly cover two key ‘don’ts’ to keep in mind as you set about bringing your characters to life — and what you should ‘do’ instead to counteract them.
Don’t start with physical character description
Spoiler alert: readers come for a good story, not a modeling portfolio. Long spiels describing your character’s piercing grey eyes and 6’1 stature will probably put your audience to sleep quicker than Nyquil.
Instead, do make sure your characters come on-stage doing something that’s actually reflective of their personality (and that doesn’t include gazing at their own reflection — unless, of course, they’re incurably vain).
Don’t introduce too many characters all at once
Think about “Game of Thrones” and the cast that George R.R. Martin juggles. If he dropped all gazillion characters on you right in the opening chapter, you’d probably be feeling a bit besieged yourself, right? Similarly, if you allow too many of your own characters to get onstage right away, your reader will struggle to keep up with their names — not to mention the story itself.
Instead, do be selective about the characters you introduce in your opening chapters, as well as when they make their entrances.
Step 5: Set up the stakes
Don’t forget that a character without stakes is like a car without an engine: an engineless car might be pretty to look at, but it won’t actually go anywhere. Likewise, a character without stakes won’t be able to take your story very far — to continue the vehicular metaphor, they’ll simply have no drive.
Setting up the stakes set will come down to showing the readers what your character wants, right from the get-go. Does your protagonist want to overthrow an authoritarian regime? Or do they want to get into university? (Note that these are not the only two options, despite what dystopian YA might have you think.)
Whatever it is, it must matter deeply to the character in order for it to matter to the audience. So do establish this right at the outset of your novel, so that you can begin creating the conflict and tension that will propel the rest of the story forward.
Step 6: Revisit the opening as your novel evolves
Don’t forget that once you’ve written the beginning of your novel — inciting incident and all — you’re not stuck with it forever! In fact, you should revisit it as your story develops. To ensure your opening scene still makes sense in the context of your whole book, work your way through this checklist when it's time to revise:
Does the tone of your opening still fit?
The premise (and even the genre) of your novel can change as you write, so you want to make sure your opening isn't an artifact of a very old draft.
Are you giving the right background info?
Like your genre, your setting can evolve as you write — for instance, you might end up tinkering with your worldbuilding by the final third of your book. This is why you should absolutely make sure that your opening takes any changes into account, even if it’s only to avoid mentioning minor details that have since become irrelevant.
Is your characterization consistent?
Every once in a while, go back and spend some time again with everyone who appears in your opening scene. Is each character portrayed in a way that's consistent with their behavior in the rest of the book (or if not, is there a good reason for it)?
The key is to keep polishing until you've got an opening that fulfills you and fits your story. It might take a revision or two — maybe even several. But keep at it, and you’ll end up with a beginning that will make readers eager to read to the end.
This article is based on Reedsy’s How to Start a Novel post. It appears here with permission.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.