How to begin a novel: 7 steps to captivating first chapters

How to begin a novel - captivating first chapters

How satisfying is a novel that sinks its hooks in from the first page? If you want to be read widely, it’s crucial to learn how to begin a novel so that you captivate readers from the first chapter. Here are 7 steps to begin a book compellingly:

1. Give your reader a strong need for an answer

There are many reasons why we keep reading when we begin a novel. We love the author’s descriptive imagination; we relate to characters or find them intriguing. Or else we like the author’s style or the subject matter.

The most universal element of story, though, is the question ‘Why?’ Why did that murder happen? Why did these characters fall in (or out of) love?

To captivate readers from the first chapter the inciting incident or event (the event that sets the story in motion) should leave the reader with unanswered questions.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), we know from the first paragraph that a central character is murdered, and by the second we know the narrator is complicit. Yet we don’t know why. In this case, character motivation (rather than the killer’s identity; ‘solving’ the crime in the strict sense) is the answer we want.

Make sure that by the end of your first page there is a ‘Why?’ (or who/what/where/when) your reader needs answered:

I had to be there [where? why the urgency?] at 9:00 am. Rebecca had even made me set four alarms on my phone in front of her [who’s Rebecca?]. But it was pushing 10:00 a.m. and I was stuck – cars backed up all along the highway [how will the narrator handle this complication?].

2: Create interesting tone, mood, and story possibilities with your opening setting

Setting is a crucial component of how to begin a novel and evoke curiosity. Think about the ways setting affects story:

  • Setting affects character motivations and actions (e.g. a character from a small town feels stifled so they move to a larger city)
  • It affects tone and mood (a character is travelling through a dangerous area when their car breaks down – the character’s location contributes a threatening mood and tone)
  • Setting lays out what is possible and what is not in your world (a character living in a post-apocalyptic desert can’t simply turn on a tap for water)

How to begin a novel - first chapters and settingAt the start of your novel, think about how these functions of setting can play out in your story opening. Say, for example, a character’s car breaks down at night in a dangerous area. How will this setting influence a character’s decisions? What are their possible choices? Read this example:

It was only four miles home, but I knew every mile by foot would be a gamble. All my hope lay in there being reception, but my phone showed a little white x where the hopeful bars should have been. Nothing to be done. I craned my neck to check my surrounds. Couldn’t see far, but I’d come to a smoking stop outside a low row of tiny, concrete houses. I could lock the door and sleep it out ’til morning, but something told me to get out and make for the nearest house, the only one whose interior was still lit at this hour.

[Side note: You can use the ‘mood’ section of Now Novel’s idea finder to brainstorm and finesse the core mood of your story’s opening.]

3: Learn how to begin a novel with interesting action

Many novels manage to grab our attention without immediately launching into action or dialogue. There’s nothing to say you can’t have an entire opening chapter of narration. (Just make sure your narrator’s voice and the information they share are both engaging).

Dialogue and action, however, are both useful ways to begin a novel. Beginning with an action that is important for your story as a whole gives an illustrative, relevant introduction. For example, here’s an example for a story featuring a serial killer anti-hero:

Luckily I don’t have to dig too deep, the earth is still loose from the last one, and damp from the night’s condensation. I hear a rustling in the cedars overhead as I heave the black bag from my boot and lower him in.

Beginning a novel with action (rather than narration) makes it easier to captivate your reader because you can place the reader in the immediate scene. The reader experiences the intimacy and intrigue of seeing what your character sees. You can show action without any immediate explanation, creating questions that will need answers.

4: Introduce strong character motivations and goals

Character goals and motivations help us relate to the cast of a novel. When you introduce characters along with unique voices early, there is an emotive element for readers to connect with.

By the third paragraph of the first book in J.K. Rowling’s bestselling Harry Potter series, for example, we know a pivotal motivation for Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle’s obsessive and fearful treatment of their nephew.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.

Character goals and motivations are core to character and story development. Introducing them early puts in place a sense of direction. The story already starts to move towards a chain of events driven by character psychology and the cause and effect of the beliefs, needs and desires characters hold.

5: Foreshadow future tensions and uncertainties

How to begin a novel - start with narrative tensionObstacles for characters, tension and conflict emerge over the course of a story. Laying the foundation for future tensions and complications at the beginning of your novel creates anticipation.

In the example above, where a character’s car breaks down in a dangerous area, we know from the first paragraph that anything could happen and that this ‘anything’ could very well be harrowing or suspenseful.

By telling us a murder happens at the start of The Secret History, Donna Tartt makes us anticipate a great reveal from the very first page. A future story event doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a murder. Your first chapter could introduce two characters who share great chemistry, for example, but trade insults and put-downs. The tension becomes whether either will go too far, despite their romantic potential.

This sense of narrative tension, the feeling that things could pan out in a number of ways, is crucial to a compelling start. Enigma and mystery are fundamental to satisfying stories.

6: Write an intriguing opening line

Knowing how to begin a novel means knowing how to craft not only a great first chapter but also a great first sentence. It’s a good idea to revisit the opening line of your novel when you’ve completed your manuscript, as a fuller knowledge of your story could inform a better choice of opening.

What makes a first line good? It could be a vivid, intriguing setting description. For example, the opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Why would clocks strike thirteen when they usually follow twelve-hour cycles? And why is this detail important? Orwell’s opening line both creates a sense of season and setting and teases us with perplexing information.

You might alternatively begin with your narrator addressing the reader directly, as Mark Twain does in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884):

You don’t know bout me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

The informality of Huck Finn’s voice, the playful self-reference Twain makes and the reference to the question of storytelling and truth draw the reader in.

As an exercising, to improve your first lines, read just the first lines of at least 10 books and note:

  • What element of the story does the author start with? (Setting? Character? Action? Memory?)
  • Why (in the context of the wider story) is this beginning fitting? What expectations do you have of the story just reading this sentence alone?
  • What questions do you have based on this sentence alone? How urgently do you want them answered?

Read a list of 30 opening lines from celebrated novels here.

7. How to begin a novel: Craft curious first chapter endings

A discussion of how to begin a novel would be incomplete without a mention of chapter endings. What does an effective chapter ending do?

  • It brings your story to the starting point of a new chain of events (the character whose car breaks down reaches the lone house and knocks on the door)
  • It leaves readers intrigued to learn what happens next (who will answer the door? Will the inhabitant confirm the suggested danger of the area or show us a harbour of safety in contrast to this tense backdrop?)
  • Chapter endings close minor arcs, allowing a break (like the episode of a series, there is an element of self-containment that makes the unit satisfying in itself)

When beginning your novel, think of new departures you could arrive at by the end of the first chapter. Does a new character arrive? Is there a change of setting? An event such as this opens out new possibilities for your story. This keeps your first chapter compelling to the last sentence.

If you have an idea for a book to flesh out, or you want feedback on your story opening, join Now Novel and get tools and critiques to help you finish your draft.

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