S. P. Brown
Opening a Novel
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
It is an indisputable fact that the opening of a novel is the most important part of the story. There are many things to keep in mind to make the novel as good as it can be, but the fact is that people rarely pick up a book and begin reading at the middle or the end or any other part besides the beginning. The opening, therefore, has to do one thing and one thing only – keep a person reading. Without the ability to sustain a person’s interest, the novel will be placed back on the shelf. The result – a lost sale. But more important than that, it probably wouldn’t be acquired in the first place, if traditional publishing is your goal. Voice may be the soul of the book, the foundation, if you will, upon which the whole novel is built, but the opening, those first paragraphs if not sentences, must – MUST – be good enough to create and sustain interest as voice unfolds.
The opening is the first lines of your work, and can take several forms, i.e., there are several ways to start. All the things you may read about how to create a good opening really boil down to these four: Descriptive, Insight, Action, Situation.
Let’s take a look at these in turn and give an example of each from the literature.
In the trilogy, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman opens the third installment this way:
In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.
The woods were full of sound: the stream between the rocks, the wind among the needles of the pine branches, the chitter of insects and the cries of small arboreal mammals, as well as the birdsong; and from time to time a stronger gust of wind would make one of the branches of a cedar or a fir move against another and groan like a cello.
This beautifully written opening describes the setting. Descriptive openings are tricky. One needs the ability to write great descriptions to pull off such an opening. Without that knack all you will have is a poorly written, boring start to the novel. A “put-downer” if there ever was one.
Pullman’s work is different, though. Notice how the first paragraph is one sentence (and the second for that matter). And what great sentences they are. Right away you are pulled into the world where we will soon find the main character and learn how she got to that cave hidden away in that intriguing forest setting. The beauty of the flow of words draws you in as your imagination soars into this world. Can’t you hear the trees playing their music? I want to stay awhile in this scene. But take care, for you must soon leave this beautiful descriptive opening and move on to some action. But be aware that too much description kills narrative flow.
Sometimes the opening offers a truth that makes every reader nod in recognition. My example of the insight opening is from an entirely different genre than Pullman’s fantasy. Michael Connelly writes detective and legal thrillers. Here is the opening from, The Brass Verdict.
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.
The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for any lie. But for the one you can grab onto and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.
That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.
What a brilliant opening to his novel where the legal system is front and center with an insight sure to lure you into the story. This is a “truth” we hardly ever think about because the world of juries and judges and lawyers is usually quite foreign to most of us. So, when we read this truth, it jars us. We want to know more. And so we’re hooked. And notice how he begins and ends this single page chapter with identical words. Brilliant arc.
Another example of an insight opening comes from the pen of Jane Austen in her wonderful novel, Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
And there you have it – another truism. The nature of the truth whether in Connelly or in Austen is that they appeal to the emotions. Readers love it when writers articulate emotions for them. It puts their own experiences into words. It connects the reader to the story in a real, satisfying way; someone else has had that experience as well.
Using action to open a novel is perhaps the easiest to write. But be aware that when I say, action, I am not meaning major sequences like a car chase or a gun battle. It can be little things where you know from the very first line what’s going on. Let’s use Philip Pullman again, my favorite children’s author, from his book, The Golden Compass.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
The action opening is a little dangerous because the reader doesn’t necessarily care about the characters just yet or know what the world is like, so you must establish these things quickly and very well. It also helps to infuse it with a little mystery. What in the world is a daemon? Why doesn’t Lyra want to be seen?
Let’s take a look at another action opening from one of my books, The Legacy.
The air shimmered where the surf reached the zenith of its climb up the beach, as though a sudden blast of heat had radiated from the bowls of the earth. Arie Peeters materialized and checked the GPS in his watch to confirm his location.
The Legacy starts with a Prologue, then after a couple of pages the real opening starts in chapter 1. Using prologues is tricky. With them you need to realize that you literally have two openings you have to make very good. Realize, too, that many times readers skip the prologue altogether, wishing to jump right into the book proper. But many don’t do this, and the prologue must grab these readers every bit as hard as the opening to chapter one. In this opening to the prologue, find the mysteriousness in it. In just two sentences there is plenty there – shimmering air, heat radiating, a character appearing as if from nowhere. This seems like it could be fantasy, or at least sci-fi. But wait, the GPS locator in Arie’s watch seems to ground the story to this world, this day. I hope you see the point.
This leads to the last example of how to open a story. I’ll use The Legacy again, because here I begin it with a different kind of opening.
Harry Black stood at his bedroom window, trying to clear his head. The woman’s screams had woken him moments before. Her shrieks still rumbled through his mind like a distant echo. He clutched the delicate drapes with both fists, holding them open, trying to think. Full-on insomnia had sucked him into a sleepless vortex, tormenting him, creating doubt. Maybe he should have heeded his grandmother’s warnings rather than dismissing them as bizarre rants, the ramblings of an insane mind.
Here the opening situation is laid bare. Harry has a sleep problem, but something seems ominous about it. His insomnia is associated with a screaming woman. That’s odd and mysterious. And what is he in doubt over? What is he being warned of? Ah, his grandmother, but she’s presented as insane. Is she really? You have to read more to find out.
Here the situation seems real and believable. Lots of people have trouble sleeping, but there is also a spark of mystery that hopefully leads you right into the story.
Even if the story is an animal story and the characters aren’t human, the characters’ behavior must be anchored in real human psychology and behavior. This sounds obvious, but common problems establish the humanity of your characters.
The opening to any book is of prime importance. You have to get it right. I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours laboring over the openings to my novels. I hope you will read them for yourself to find out if I’ve done a good job. Then pop over and send me an email via my website to let me know.
Wishing You Good Writing and a Blessed Day!