The opening of your novel is the most important part you’ll write. If you don’t hook the reader in those first few hundred words, you’re done for. They’ll put the book down and probably not pick it up again. So you need to make the opening paragraph of your novel a real page-turner – literally grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go. This is especially so if it is your debut novel. You don’t have the luxury of readers knowing what a brilliant writer you are, so you can’t rely on your reputation to take them past a disappointing first few pages. So, how do you craft a cracking opening for you novel?
Dive Right Into the Action
Remember that the beginning of the novel is not an introduction, it’s not a school essay, you should dive straight into the action. A great way to do this is to start your novel with speech, like Salman Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses:
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
The reader must feel the tension throughout the first few paragraphs of the novel. They must feel like something important is about to happen, a life-changing event that puts the future happiness of the main character at stake. You should aim to start setting up the main conflict in the book in the first few paragraphs too. The reader should know what’s about to happen that causes the unfolding of the story that’s to follow.
Reveal the time and place
Make sure that it’s clear where and when the story takes place in the first few paragraphs, if you can. This is really important because you know when you are reading a book, you form images in your mind of how the people and places look. I know I’ve often read a novel and then seen the film and been disappointed that the screen version did not match the one in my head! When you read, what you’re really doing is playing out the scenes of the book like a film in your imagination and, in order to do this, you need to know when and where the film is set. However, be careful not to give too much information. Keep only to the details necessary at this point in the story. Don’t give long rambling descriptions of background and the like, or your readers will be snoozing before you know it!
Introduce the main character and his rivals
This is very important. You need to introduce the main characters in the first chapter. The reader needs to know what kind of lifestyle and background the main character has, including how old they are, what they look like and their likes and habits. These details help the reader, like those about time and place, form an image in their mind. It also helps to introduce the main antagonist here too and reveal some, if not all, the reasons behind the bad feelings between them.
Make it clear what type of book it is
You need to show the reader what kind of book it is fairly quickly. If your book is supposed to be a comedy, then it needs to be funny right from the off. If it’s a murder mystery, there’s going to be disappointment if no one gets murdered until half way through the book. By doing this you’ll be setting the theme for the rest of the book.
Some super examples
Read through the following opening lines from some wonderful novels and learn from the best.Take this opening line from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for example:
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’
It certainly makes me want to read on – who is this Lolita and why does the narrator feel that way about her. Or this dramatic one line opening from Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 45:1
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
That certainly grabs the attention and makes me think about how much I like to watch things burn too – I think everyone secretly does!
And then there’s the classically wonderful opening from Moby Dick:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
And this opening from George Owells’ 1984 is one that elicits an ‘Eh?’ from the reader, which immediately makes them want to read on to find out how the clock could possibly be striking 13:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
Having said all that, there are many people who ignore all these rules and still produce quality, gripping work. So, whilst these rules can help if you’re not sure what to do, if you feel you’d like to go another way entirely, do it and see how it works out – that’s what drafts are for. If it doesn’t work, you simply start draft number two!