What is the most crucial part of your book? Some will say the end, but most of us know that it’s the beginning. It’s the one chance you have to capture the reader’s imagination and pull them into your world. How do you go about crafting the perfect beginning? There are many templates, but they all have a few things in common.
The two articles below I found intriguing and very helpful in starting your novel in the best possible way. The second article deals primarily with the opening sentence, but the first lays out the critical elements of a great beginning. There is a video before them that walks you through the intricacies of novel beginnings and what a great one should include. From the main character, foreshadowing, and the tone an excellent beginning should arrest the reader in their tracks while building their curiosity. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
Five Essentials for an Opening Scene
by Rachel Meyer
In Doctor Who, Liz 10 defends a small child from monsters, establishing how serious the situation is.
The opening scene is one of the most crucial in your novel. It has to engage readers while introducing the most important aspects of the story. I know that’s a lot, so let’s go over the five big things you need for a good opening scene: main character, tone, world, foreshadowing, and conflict. While there are exceptions, the vast majority of great stories stick to this list, and it’s usually best to follow what works.
Your main character is obviously an important part of your story. It’s vital to introduce them as early as possible, so your readers can get to know them and root for them quickly. People tend to get attached to characters they meet in the opening scene, so make sure that character is your hero and not a random person who barely shows up.
Most stories start with a scene that features the main character, so getting them in there isn’t difficult. Helping readers discover what sort of person they are is the tricky part. That’s where the term “characteristic moment” comes in. This is a part of the opening scene, or sometimes the whole scene, that tells readers what to expect from the main character. Most stories will include this because it’s an easy way to show if your character is good, bad, or morally ambiguous.
However, this moment can’t and shouldn’t explain every nuance of their character. Oversharing can be a fatal flaw in an opening scene. Readers don’t need to know the hero’s entire tragic backstory out of the box. Provide a basic sketch of their character and what they look like, but avoid a whole paragraph describing their luscious hair.
In the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re introduced to Indiana Jones, who is easily recognized as the rugged action-hero type. He sneaks into an ancient temple, defeats the traps, and gets out with the artifact. We also get more of a glimpse of his personality in the next scene, which shows his brainiac professor side.
The second important thing to remember in your opening scene is tone. Tone is the overall feel of your novel. For example, a crime thriller will probably feel dark and gritty, while a contemporary romance will have a lighter, happier air.
You can’t start a dark book with a comedic opening scene, or vice versa. If you start your story with a different tone than the rest of the book, readers will get confused as soon as you move on. It’s always a good idea to decide what your tone will be in the prewriting stages of any project in order to avoid problems later.
Tone is one of the trickiest things to work into a first scene. If you’re too subtle, the scene can become bland, but if you go overboard, it’ll be obnoxious. You have to find that special balancing point, and that spot will be different for every story. The best advice I can give is to work it until it feels right.
In Big Hero 6, the movie opens with an aerial shot of San Fransokyo, automatically letting you guess that this is a futuristic sort of movie. We then cut to a Pacific Rim/Power Ranger bot fight that turns out to be not quite as big or bad as you thought. This scene perfectly captures the tone of the movie, which is a mix of fun scifi and gritty superhero stories.
Your opening doesn’t have to be a fifty-page monologue about hobbits and tobacco, but you should at least hint about your world. If it’s scifi, show some planets out the window or two suns in the sky. If it’s fantasy, add some fairies or magic. You want something that says to readers, “This isn’t the world you know.” (Unless, of course, it is the world they know.)
Establishing the world is especially important because book covers and synopses can be misleading. No one wants to get fifty pages in before they realize that this book is second-world fantasy instead of a contemporary fantasy.
When you’re introducing your main character, you also don’t need a massive info dump. Slowly trickle in the details where it feels realistic. Give enough facts that readers know what’s going on, but don’t overwhelm them with pages of description. Carefully build up the world and they will love it.
In Warcross, the main character, Em, goes about her life trying to find the money she needs to pay rent through bounty hunting. Through her actions, author Marie Lu shows us everything we need to know to start: that the story takes places in the near future, that society has declined, and that a game called Warcross has an overwhelming impact on people’s lives.
You know that sense of foreboding you get at the beginning of a horror novel, that niggling feeling that something’s not right? Or when you get to the middle of a book and realize that something you learned in the beginning just became important? Those hints of what’s ahead are called foreshadowing.
Most opening scenes won’t have a lot to do with the plot. Instead, they introduce the whole story. That’s why foreshadowing is important in scene one. It not only helps readers know what to expect, but it also helps build anticipation.
To properly use foreshadowing, you need to know what’s going to happen later on and which of those elements are important enough to include in your first scene. Plot, primary characters, and even important objects could all be hinted at in scene one. But be sure not to smack readers in the face with things. It’s supposed to be a taste, not the full-blown meal.
Doctor Who episodes often foreshadow their plots and monsters, but an episode that particularly sticks in my mind is “The Beast Below.” It starts out with a scene of schoolchildren getting their grades for the day. One little boy is told by the creepy Smiler that he did not do a good job and is forced to go on an elevator by himself, where a creepy poem is recited and he falls through the floor. It quickly drops hints about the sinister things below the surface for the hero – and viewers – to investigate later.
Conflict is the final element that is vital in your opening scene. Why? Because no one wants to read a whole scene about your character quietly reading the newspaper. But make the scene about your character quietly reading the newspaper while the upper half of his apartment is on fire, then you have entertainment.
Conflict doesn’t have to be drastic fight scenes or life-threatening situations, either. It can be as simple as two characters arguing or your main character losing their school presentation. All we need is something that creates friction and gets readers asking questions.
This can also help you introduce your main character, because everyone reacts differently to conflict. You just need to pick the right conflict for your character and story. If it’s a Western, the opening conflict could be the cowboy dealing with some rustlers. If it’s a romance, the main character could do something embarrassing in front of their love interest.
However, it’s best to avoid in medias res (starting in the thick of the plot) unless you know how to do that properly. Otherwise, you’ll end up with something flashy, but with no substance. You need to present readers with a scene that will wet their palate for the rest of the story, not give them something that drops them in the middle with no explanation.
My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t have a flashy opening. It simply shows two little girls moving across Japan with their father and their truck. But the way it starts makes you ask questions like “Where are they moving?” and “Where is their mother?” Once they arrive at their new house, soot sprites are introduced to create more conflict and raise questions, keeping viewers hooked.
Every element in an opening scene needs to work together to create a doorway into your story. It’s tricky, but with some hard work and a lot of editing, you can do it.
How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs
Learning how to start a novel, how to write a great first sentence, paragraph or chapter, is key to writing books that pull readers in fast. What makes a first sentence or paragraph strong? Read examples from classics and bestselling novels, then get feedback on your own story opening:
How to start a novel: Write question-raising first lines
When starting a novel, you have one goal: To create an inviting entry point into your story.
Here are some first lines from classic and contemporary novels that make us want to know more. Not all are particularly action-heavy or flashy, but all create curiosity:
‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967)
The first sentence of Marquez’s acclaimed novel intrigues us. Who is this man and why does he end up facing the death penalty? Where and when does he live that he would journey to ‘discover’ ice? Marquez creates intriguing questions and foreshadows dramatic turns of events.
George Orwell, another master of the teasing, intriguing story beginning, gives us this example:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
Orwell begins with setting and a strange event: Clocks striking an unlikely hour. Ordinarily, modern clocks strike up to 12 times, beginning again from 1 for a.m. and p.m. In the 14th and 15th Centuries clocks that struck 24 times were more common. This strange anachronism (a detail from another time and place) subtly suggests that everything is out of balance and out of time in Orwell’s world.
A first line might tell us a crucial detail about a character or setting. It can also simply tease and perplex us with a statement that doesn’t immediately reveal much. For example, the opening to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Beloved (1987).
‘124 was spiteful.’
Morrison’s opening gives away very little but still intrigues us. ‘What is 124? A person? A place?’ In Morrison’s harrowing novel, we quickly learn it’s the address of a house haunted by the ghosts and trauma of slavery.
More recent bestselling novels have first lines that use similar means to create intrigue. For example, the mysterious opening of Paula Hawkins’ multi-million selling smash hit, The Girl on the Train (2015):
‘She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.’
A first line like this is compelling. It’s mysterious enough to make us ask questions. The pronoun ‘she’ in place of an introductory name gives little away. However, it is also specific enough (because of the reference to a grave and location) for us to form an idea of where we are and what the story will cover (a death or even a grisly murder). (C.S. Lakin dissects what makes Hawkins’ first page work further here.)
To write your own great story opening:
- Like the examples above, make the reader ask ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘Where?’ or ‘When?’
- Begin with an interesting detail of character, setting or something symbolic of your story’s largest themes (like Morrison’s hint of a haunting) that ropes the reader in
A great opening line has to be followed by a great opening paragraph. Its hard to do either if you don’t have a central story idea that inspires you and suggests ideas. [You can brainstorm and finesse your central idea using Now Novel’s Idea Finder. Try it now, or when you’ve finished reading the following examples.]
How to write first paragraphs
Here is the how Marquez’s opening paragraph continues in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Following on from the opening about Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s memories of his father, Marquez writes:
‘At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.’
From the opening character focus, Marquez reveals setting, the early day’s of the character’s hometown as he remembers his journey with his father. By prefacing his setting description with ‘At that time’, Marquez makes it clear that Macondo of the past is very different to Macondo of the story’s present. This type of story opening gives us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. We get roped more into the character’s life as we start to see glimpses of his past and the environment and upbringing that shaped him.
Next, let’s look at how Orwell continues from his puzzling opening in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
‘Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.’
Here, Orwell adds a character to the mix and intrigues us further. The verb ‘slipped’ implies stealth or sneakiness. Why is the character ‘slipping’ into buildings? We read on to find out just a little bit more.
Like Marquez, Toni Morrison creates a nearly complete world in her opening paragraph. Who wouldn’t wish to keep reading from this point to learn what happens next?
A promising first line has to be followed by a first paragraph that does not disappoint. The first paragraph needs to draw the reader deeper into the story and raise still more questions.
How to begin a novel with a strong hook
Where better to learn how to begin a novel than by reading examples from bestsellers that have become global publishing phenomenons? Although many modern bestsellers reach this status through multiple factors (such as the amount of marketing put into making the book visible), they still often pass through the hands of expert editors and publishers. These are professionals who can tell a gripping opening from a dud.
Before examples of opening lines from contemporary bestsellers, let’s look at a story that’s stood the test of centuries: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The comical, epic tale of a delusional knight and his long-suffering sidekick, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide since its first publication.
Skipping the prologue, here are the first words of the first chapter proper:
‘Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.’
What makes Cervantes’ opening a pleasure to read and an interesting hook, and as interesting today as it was in 1605, is that it gets straight down to introducing an intriguing character. Why does Don Quixote have a lance and ancient shield? Cervantes mixes the heroic, epic style (the ‘once upon a time’) with a quirky, informal narrator’s voice. With humorous anticlimax, he begins in an epic tone but immediately refers to the exact setting as a place ‘whose name I do not care to remember’. Cervantes continues this mock-heroic tone throughout. It gives even the simplest setting or action descriptions an element of sly humour.
What can we deduce from this classic bestseller’s opening lines about writing a good hook?
- A good hook gets to interesting and relevant details of character, setting or plot quickly
- As mentioned above, an opening hook raises interesting questions (who is this man with his ancient shield and skinny nag?)
- If the story opens with narrator, the narrator’s voice itself captures our interest with humour or distinct personality
Examples of strong opening hooks from contemporary bestsellers
Although there are common features between bestsellers of past centuries and today, much contemporary fiction is especially ‘hooky’. Read these examples of first lines from recent New York Times bestsellers that really capture attention:
‘The impostor borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford.’ (Camino Island, John Grisham, 2017)
‘The men bind her again. Different this time: Left thumb to right toe; right thumb to left. The rope around her waist. This time, they carry her into the water.’ (Into the Water, Paula Hawkins, 2017)
‘Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.
‘It was a thin file. Just a few pages. Like all the rest surrounding him on the old wooden floor of his study. And yet, not like all the rest.’ (A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny, 2016)
Each of these examples demonstrate the preceding points about strong opening sentences and paragraphs. They make us ask questions, they reveal curious characters, settings and/or actions. Take the opening to John Grisham’s Camino Island. We wonder who this impostor is, what their role will be in the heist that is referred to in the chapter title. Why would a professor of American literature’s name come in handy?
Secondly, we have the chilling opening of Paula Hawkins’ follow-up to her wildly successful debut, The Girl on the Train. This disturbing prologue describes a murder and we wonder about both the identity of the victim and the motivation of her attackers. The short words of the attackers and the tense, short sentences describing the character’s predicament set a fast, skittering pace from the start.
The third example, by the acclaimed Canadian mystery author Louise Penny, is from the 12th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. We begin immediately with her inspector and main character facing a challenge. A dossier ‘not like all the rest’. This teasing situation, the promise of a case that might flummox even a man of Inspector Gamache’s experience, ropes us in.
Each of these novel openings contains at least one of the following elements of great opening hooks:
- Unanswered questions
- Intriguing actions or events
- Troubling, unusual or suspenseful scenarios