How to write the best opening to your novel

This is another article in my ‘How to write the best…’ series. The series includes how to write the best blurb, query letter and I’m open to more suggestions if there’s anything you’d like me to tackle? You might wonder why I’ve decided to focus on the minutiae but I’ve found that the seemingly small things in writing can be the most difficult. I’m not an author but I am an editor, writing coach and reviewer – so you could say that my life revolves around the written word – and more importantly supporting the writer.

How to write the best opening to your novel

One of the most important pieces of advice you can be given as a writer is: there is no better way to learn to write than to just start writing. You don’t have to write the opening paragraph first; arguably it is the hardest part to get right. It has to achieve so many things that it can seem like an insurmountable task. Something encouraging to keep in mind is that the opening paragraph is rarely perfect in the first draft.

One of the mistakes that I see in first drafts is an author who wants to tell us everything we need to know at the very start. I completely understand the temptation to do that, but it just slows everything down and becomes boring very quickly. The first lines need to be concise and generally action-heavy, you can elaborate on reasons and details later. If you try to explain the action too much, too early, you risk losing the intrigue and curiosity that you are trying to hook your reader with. That said, there are lots of methods of opening a novel and the most unique are often remembered the most.

Read your favourite novels’ openings, what do they have in common? This will obviously differ, depending on the genre, but it should give you some idea of what kind of opening hooks you. An effective opening can do many things but shouldn’t try to do them all!

Use your beta readers, give them your opening paragraph (separate from the rest of your manuscript) to begin with and target your questions so they give you the information you need. Ask for a rating of how likely they are to read on. What do they feel after reading it: intrigued, shocked, bored, entertained, disgusted? You need to have an idea of what your preferred answer is to assess its success. It might be helpful to write a variety of openings and assess their reactions in order to chose the best one. Get in touch if you would like help with this.

Common ways to open a novel

  • Introduce the narrator: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle). Also see no.4 below.
  • Introduce a character: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (CS Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • Refer to an event in the future (or the past) that further reading will illuminate. (no.1 below)
  • Introduce a theme: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice)
  • Set the scene, describe the landscape: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains” (Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms)

I’ve included four of the books I’ve read recently, all of them have great openings for different reasons.

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

This is a classic style of opening which jumps forward to later events which we immediately want to know more about but have to wait for the story to unfold. The use of the past perfect tense ‘had finally gone’ adds to the mystery and intrigue – what has happened to make Isabelle do something so crazy and destructive?

2. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room.

The first sentence of this opening seems ordinary if in isolation – but paired with the last phrase of the paragraph leads to our piqued interest. One of the themes of the novel is also gently introduced by the clarification that the missed flight was because of an injustice, not the fault of Isma.

3. Friend Request by Laura Marshall

The email arrives in my inbox like an unexploded bomb: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook.

This opening is very simple but immediately sets a tone: a normal friend request doesn’t inspire such strength of feeling, we know instantly that this friend request isn’t wanted and has massive significance to the character we haven’t even met yet.

4. Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her. She just lay on the floor holding her jaw. Staring at me. Silent. She didn’t even seem to be surprised.

This opening introduces us to our cold narrator with a bang. We get a sense of his detachment and lack of feeling. The fact that ‘she’ wasn’t surprised to be hit also leaves us with a sense of what we are dealing with – this is no romance!

Have you any favourite opening paragraphs? Let me know what they are! I hope this has helped if you have been feeling stuck.

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