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 is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. She’s been the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts & has also been a script reader for 20 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. She’s also an author, publishing as both LV Hay and Lizzie Fry. Lizzie’s latest, a serial killer thriller titled The Good Mother is out now with Joffe Books, with her sixth thriller out in 2024. Lucy’s site at www.bang2write.com has appeared in Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life, as well as a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK (ninth in the world.). She is also the author of the bestselling non-fiction book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot To Feature Film (Creative Essentials), which she updated for the streaming age for its tenth anniversary in 2023.