How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs

How to start a novel - writing first sentences and paragraphs - Now Novel

Learning how to start a novel intriguingly is vital because readers have plenty of books to choose from.You might often hear the advice that you must snag a reader’s attention from the very beginning, but what does that actually mean?

A caveat to beginning your book with a bang

A car chase, a family running out of a burning home with only the clothes on their backs: this sounds like the stuff of great fiction, doesn’t it? Who would want to quit reading a book that started out with scenes like these? In fact, books that begin in this way may be easier to put down than you’d think.

Writers often believe that hooking readers means beginning with great drama (such as a passionate argument between two characters). The problem with starting like this is that the reader is not yet invested in characters. The problem with beginning your novel with a bang is that nothing is at stake yet. Even the most exciting events will leave a reader cold if the reader knows nothing of the characters or the situation.

This confusion is furthered by another piece of common advice. Writers are often told to begin in the middle of things. While it’s important to choose an interesting starting point for a story, this is frequently misunderstood. Beginning in the middle doesn’t mean deliberately causing confusion or withholding key information about characters such as their immediate motivations.

The start of a novel should raise questions. If starting out with a conflict isn’t always the best way to do that, then what is?

To begin with, let’s look at some great classic first sentences from literature and consider what they say about how to start a novel:

How to start a novel: First Lines

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It’s not necessary to make your reader want to read the entire book based on the first sentence. You must simply draw the reader’s attention on to the next sentence and the rest of the paragraph. Think about it: How often have you stayed up far too late with a book so that you could read just one more chapter? In a well-constructed novel, that one more chapter can turn into just one more. Suddenly, you’ve stayed up late into the night. You’ve been carried deeper into the novel a little bit at a time. First lines are just the beginning of this process.

Here are some first lines from classic and contemporary novels that make us want to know more. If we look at these lines, we can see that the gets the reader’s attention using elements of the novel including plot, language and character. Notice that each of these is not particularly loud or flashy, but they are all intriguing.

  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”(One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) This opening line to one of the great novels of the 20th century intrigues us with elements of plot, character and setting. Who is this man and why would he be facing a firing squad? Where and when does he live that he would journey to discover ice?
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell) – This famous opening line relies primarily on a setting with clocks striking an impossible hour. We immediately know we are in an alien world, and we read on to learn more.

 

  • “All children, except one, grow up.” (Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie) – This opening line from a story that became widely known as “Peter Pan” focuses on a character. We wonder how there could be a child who never grows up.

 

A great opening line has to be followed by a great opening paragraph. Let’s take a look at how these writers accomplished that:

How to write first paragraphs: Lessons from the greats

1984Here is the opening paragraph of the Marquez novel. It’s on the long and dense side for an opening paragraph, but Marquez holds the reader’s attention. This paragraph is so vivid and rich in the right details that by the end of it, the reader has been thoroughly drawn into a fully realised world.

Here, too, is the rest of the paragraph from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

‘Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.’

Here, Orwell adds a character to the mix and intrigues us further. This is still not a world that we recognise, and we read on to find out just a little bit more.’

The opening paragraph of Peter and Wendy is here. In addition to being introduced to Wendy, we also get a sense of the whimsy of the writer’s tone. We are assured here once again that all children do grow up. This makes us want to keep reading so we can learn how it is possible that one child would not.

Like Marquez, Toni Morrison creates a nearly-complete world in her opening paragraph. Who wouldn’t wish to keep reading from this point to learn what happens next?

A promising first line has to be followed by a first paragraph that does not disappoint. The first paragraph needs to draw the reader deeper into the story and raise still more questions. (Getting feedback on your story’s first line from the rest of the Now Novel community will help you improve your novel’s opening.)

How to hook readers

Think of opening lines and paragraphs as being like meeting someone for the first time. You probably wouldn’t be interested in getting to know a person who immediately began telling you everything about themselves or tried to drag you into personal drama right away. Instead, you learn just enough about the person that you want to ask a question, and then another.

Think of the opening of your novel as a similar opportunity to lead your reader into the rest of the paragraph and the next page. They don’t have to fall in love with the book on the first sentence, but they need to be curious enought to keep going.

The first page, the first paragraph and the first sentence of your novel may be more heavily revised than any other part of your book. Keep these points in mind as you work on the beginning of your story:

  • Be specific and vivid.
  • Ask yourself what you’re using to get the reader’s attention (plot, character, humour, etc.)
  • Ask yourself what questions you are raising in your opening sentence and paragraph. Will they draw readers on?
  • Study some of your favourite novels’ opening sentences and paragraphs. Look at what the writer does to get your attention and ask yourself what made you as a reader want to keep going. Applying this same approach to your own fiction will ensure that you also have irresistible openings.

Do you have a set approach for how to start a novel?

Start writing and submitting your work for helpful feedback on Now Novel now.

Images sourced from here, here, here and here

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  • PicoMania

    OK, so for the George Orwell line, thirteen is not an impossible hour, it is actually 1:00 pm in military time (thirteen hundred to be exact.) It does add intrigue for most people not used to it, and even for those used to it it conveys a certain mathematical/rigidity/military (state in this case) vibe, so I can see why he used it. It’s also more succinct and poetic than just saying a clumsy-sounding one o’clock or one in the afternoon (this one especially conjures images of a sunny afternoon unless you describe that it wasn’t). Thirteen is just the time. Cold, detached, nothing more to read into it, yet so beautifully stated.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Pico. But in terms of the mechanism of a clock, most only strike up to twelve, then strike 1 again for 1 p.m, two for 2, etc. Since these clocks use the analogue system. Perhaps that was a bit unclear. Thanks for reading and weighing in!

  • Donald Miller

    I’m very impressed. Excellent site with a lot of outstanding information.

  • Abbie Cooper

    I wrote a first line

    White. White walls, white ceiling, white floor, a white window frame inviting sunlight into the white room. White bed, white blanket, white door. White. There was an almost sterile feel to the white room; the tiles gleamed as if they were mirrors to a pale world. A chill was in the air.

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