How you start your story is super-important, which is why your novel’s opening is crucial. In just a few sentences – yup, sentences, never mind pages! – you need to GRAB your reader’s attention and pull them into your storyworld.
But HOW do writers do this? Well, how long is a piece of string … your novel’s opening may depend on many factors. That’s the bad news though. The good news is there ARE best practices we can learn from. Ready? Let’s go …
WHY a Great Opening is Important
A great opening in a novel is important for several reasons …
i) It sets the tone for the rest of the book. ‘Starting as you mean to go on’ is very important in novel writing. It won’t do to start a romantic comedy with a murder, for example. Whilst that may seem obvious – and it is – it’s surprising how few writers ‘match’ their genre and tone with their content!
ii) It can also set up the conflict and introduce the reader to the characters. Lots of writers think ‘conflict’ = lots of arguments or fighting. Yet as screenwriters always say, ‘drama is conflict’ which means the SITUATION characters find themselves in. In other words, you just need a strong situation that creates lots of problems for your protagonist. This in turn means we learn about your character from how they respond to those problems.
iii) Lastly, a great opening can hook the reader and make them want to keep reading. If a potential reader is interested in your book, there’s a strong chance they will check out your first page. Few of us buy books without downloading the sample from Kindle, or opening the book in the store. We all make snap judgements!
Think of your novel’s opening as your ‘audition’ for a new reader and you can’t go wrong.
The Different Types of Openings
A great opening in a novel is one of those ‘you’ll know it when you see it’ type of things. It could be a powerful prologue that sets the stage for the story to come, or it could be a slow-burn first chapter that gradually builds up to something more exciting. Whatever form it takes, a great opening is always important in hooking readers and keeping them invested in the story.
Tip # 1: Start with Action
One of the most common ways to open a novel is with some kind of action scene. I write crime fiction and thrillers, so I often start with the crime itself … Or I may begin with a person’s response to it (running away, fighting back, racing to cover it up, etc).
However, you can do whatever you like as long as it’s exciting! Perhaps in your horror novel your protagonist is being haunted by ghosts or chased by werewolves? Or in your romantic comedy, perhaps your character is racing after their ex-partner to stop them from leaving?
Action openings are usually fast-paced and exciting, and they can give readers a good sense of what the rest of the novel will be like. They can also be used to introduce readers to the characters and setting of the story right away.
Tip # 2: Focus On Worldbuilding
Another popular way to start a novel is with a focus on worldbuilding. This could involve introducing readers to the rich history and lore of the storyworld. Alternatively, it could simply be establishing the everyday lives of the characters before things start to get interesting.
One word of caution: it can be very easy to ‘info dump’ when worldbuilding if you are not careful! Make sure you don’t make your reader ‘wait’ for the story to start … Introduce the setting, situation and characters hand in hand.
Tip # 3: Start with Characters
Some novels choose to open with character introductions instead, either through dialogue or inner monologue. This often benefits from a quirky beginning that really marks the character out.
One of my favorites is probably I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Protagonist and narrator Cassandra starts with the memorable line, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’!
More Examples of Great Novel Openings
More memorable first lines that focus on the characters …
- “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
- “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Tips on Writing a Great Opening for Your Novel
It’s no secret that the first few pages of a novel are important. They are what hook the reader and make them want to keep reading. But how do you write a great opening? Here are a few tips:
1. Start with action. You want to grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence. One way to do this is to start in the middle of the action, rather than at the beginning.
2. Introduce your characters quickly. Don’t spend pages and pages describing them; just give enough information so that readers can start forming attachments.
3. Set the scene. Give readers a sense of place and time so they can immerse themselves in the story.
4. Use strong language. Your words should be evocative and paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
5. Hook the reader with a question or mystery. Make them want to know more so they’ll keep reading to find out what happens next.
A great opening in a novel is incredibly important and should be taken seriously. It sets the tone for the entire story, and it can make or break a reader’s interest from the start.
An effective opening will have characters that readers can relate to, an engaging plotline, vivid description of setting, and clever dialogue. Put simply – craft your opening thoughtfully and carefully for maximum impact.
Lucy V. Hay aka Bang2write is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts. She has also been a script reader for over 15 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. Publishing as LV Hay, Lucy’s debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is out now and is being adapted by Agatha Raisin producers Free@Last TV. Her second crime novel, Do No Harm, was a finalist in the 2019 Dead Good Book Readers’ Awards. Lucy is also Lizzie Fry, whose books The Coven and Kill For It are out now with Sphere books.
Raymond Walker says
I like the idea and have used this methodology before, but it seems that those who enjoy your books just do. When others do not. I still try to attract new readers in with a well thought out beginning (lol) and end but to be honest with you, I am unsure that it makes much of a difference. I tried to do an “Ian Banks” in a couple of my novels but to be honest I am not sure that it worked.
Oh sorry, for those of you who do not know Ian Banks. “The Crow Road” started with “It all started on the day my grandmother exploded”. A clever writer, he always had a “Capture” phase.
I try to do it but wither I am succesful or not is a moot question.
Lucy V says
‘Capture phrase’ is a good moniker. Ian Banks was great at the ‘character intro’ sentence I outline in the post.
Christine E. Robinson says
Great reminder, Lucy! I rewrote the first page and first sentence in the sequel at least 100 times. I may have to add something more as the theme has more included. With the debut book, I got it right. But, I’m paying more attention to the story beats for the sequel. 📚🎶 Christine
Lucy V says
Good luck with your sequel!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Starting with action is a tricky one because the wrong sort dumps them into a situation where they don’t know what’s going on, but when it’s done well and the reader gets enough information to get the basics of the current event unfolding they are pulled along with it and learn more about it and the characters as they do. I love being hooked as a reader by those little hooky details that pull me deeper into the action 🙂
Lucy V says
I love being hooked too by the little details!
Kay DiBianca says
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an author in possession of a good opening, is on her way to a captivating story.
(I couldn’t resist.) Great article and advice. Thank you!
Lucy V says
Haha love it! Thanks ❤️
BECCA PUGLISI says
Love me a strong story opening! Your advice for starting with action is interesting because this very often doesn’t work for me, personally. I like to know the character a bit before they get thrown to the wolves, but it’s true that this kind of opening works better for some stories than for others. Thank you, Lucy!
Lucy V says
Yup it won’t be right for everyone or for every type of story for sure. I’m definitely a screenwriter at heart because action openings are the standard in that medium.
Cheryl Potts says
Am wondering about the use of prologs in relation to this article. The use of prologs is controversial. Do the same suggestions apply?
Lucy V says
Hi Cheryl, you’re right – prologues bring up all sorts of shenanigans, especially online. I don’t tend to use them … or rather I do, I just call them ‘chapter one’ to avoid any problems! So yes, I’d venture the advice is the same.
Jan Sikes says
Excellent tips for a great opening! Thanks for sharing!
Lucy V says
Glad the article helped!