How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs

How to start a novel: First sentences and paragraphs | Now Novel

Learning how to start a novel, how to write a great first sentence, paragraph or chapter, is key to writing books that pull readers in fast. What makes a first sentence or paragraph strong? Read examples from classics and bestselling novels, then get feedback on your own story opening:

How to start a novel: Write question-raising first lines

When starting a novel, you have one goal: To create an inviting entry point into your story.

Here are some first lines from classic and contemporary novels that make us want to know more. Not all are particularly action-heavy or flashy, but all create curiosity:

‘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, 1967)

The first sentence of Marquez’s acclaimed novel intrigues us. Who is this man and why does he end up facing the death penalty? Where and when does he live that he would journey to ‘discover’ ice? Marquez creates intriguing questions and foreshadows dramatic turns of events.

George Orwell, another master of the teasing, intriguing story beginning, gives us this example:

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)

Orwell begins with setting and a strange event: Clocks striking an unlikely hour. Ordinarily, modern clocks strike up to 12 times, beginning again from 1 for a.m. and p.m.  In the 14th and 15th Centuries clocks that struck 24 times were more common. This strange anachronism (a detail from another time and place) subtly suggests that everything is out of balance and out of time in Orwell’s world.

A first line might tell us a crucial detail about a character or setting. It can also simply tease and perplex us with a statement that doesn’t immediately reveal much. For example, the opening to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Beloved (1987).

‘124 was spiteful.’

Morrison’s opening gives away very little but still intrigues us. ‘What is 124? A person? A place?’ In Morrison’s harrowing novel, we quickly learn it’s the address of a house haunted by the ghosts and trauma of slavery.

More recent bestselling novels have first lines that use similar means to create intrigue. For example, the mysterious opening of Paula Hawkins’ multi-million selling smash hit, The Girl on the Train (2015):

‘She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.’

A first line like this is compelling. It’s mysterious enough to make us ask questions. The pronoun ‘she’ in place of an introductory name gives little away. However, it is also specific enough (because of the reference to a grave and location) for us to form an idea of where we are and what the story will cover (a death or even a grisly murder). (C.S. Lakin dissects what makes Hawkins’ first page work further here.)

To write your own great story opening:

  • Like the examples above, make the reader ask ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘Where?’ or ‘When?’
  • Begin with an interesting detail of character, setting or something symbolic of your story’s largest themes (like Morrison’s hint of a haunting) that ropes the reader in

A great opening line has to be followed by a great opening paragraph. Its hard to do either if you don’t have a central story idea that inspires you and suggests ideas. [You can brainstorm and finesse your central idea using Now Novel’s Idea Finder. Try it now, or when you’ve finished reading the following examples.]

How to write first paragraphs: Lessons from classic stories

Here is the how Marquez’s opening paragraph continues in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Following on from the opening about Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s memories of his father, Marquez writes:

‘At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.’

From the opening character focus, Marquez reveals setting, the early day’s of the character’s hometown as he remembers his journey with his father. By prefacing his setting description with ‘At that time’, Marquez makes it clear that Macondo of the past is very different to Macondo of the story’s present. This type of story opening gives us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. We get roped more into the character’s life as we start to see glimpses of his past and the environment and upbringing that shaped him.

Next, let’s look at how Orwell continues from his puzzling opening in 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. The verb ‘slipped’ implies stealth or sneakiness. Why is the character ‘slipping’ into buildings? We read on to find out just a little bit more.

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.

Infographic - 5 types of story openings | Now Novel

Right click to save this infographic and embed, or share this post

How to begin a novel with a strong hook: Learning from the classsics

Where better to learn how to begin a novel than by reading examples from bestsellers that have become global publishing phenomenons? Although many modern bestsellers reach this status through multiple factors (such as the amount of marketing put into making the book visible), they still often pass through the hands of expert editors and publishers. These are professionals who can tell a gripping opening from a dud.

Before examples of opening lines from contemporary bestsellers, let’s look at a story that’s stood the test of centuries: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The comical, epic tale of a delusional knight and his long-suffering sidekick, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide since its first publication.

Skipping the prologue, here are the first words of the first chapter proper:

‘Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.’

What makes Cervantes’ opening a pleasure to read and an interesting hook, and as interesting today as it was in 1605, is that it gets straight down to introducing an intriguing character. Why does Don Quixote have a lance and ancient shield? Cervantes mixes the heroic, epic style (the ‘once upon a time’) with a quirky, informal narrator’s voice. With humorous anticlimax, he begins in an epic tone but immediately refers to the exact setting as a place ‘whose name I do not care to remember’. Cervantes continues this mock-heroic tone throughout. It gives even the simplest setting or action descriptions an element of sly humour.

What can we deduce from this classic bestseller’s opening lines about writing a good hook?

  • A good hook gets to interesting and relevant details of character, setting or plot quickly
  • As mentioned above, an opening hook raises interesting questions (who is this man with his ancient shield and skinny nag?)
  • If the story opens with narrator, the narrator’s voice itself captures our interest with humour or distinct personality

Examples of strong opening hooks from contemporary bestsellers

Although there are common features between bestsellers of past centuries and today, much contemporary fiction is especially ‘hooky’. Read these examples of first lines from recent New York Times bestsellers that really capture attention:

‘The impostor borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford.’ (Camino Island, John Grisham, 2017)

‘Again! Again!’
‘The men bind her again. Different this time: Left thumb to right toe; right thumb to left. The rope around her waist. This time, they carry her into the water.’ (Into the Water, Paula Hawkins, 2017)

‘Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.
‘It was a thin file. Just a few pages. Like all the rest surrounding him on the old wooden floor of his study. And yet, not like all the rest.’ (A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny, 2016)

Each of these examples demonstrate the preceding points about strong opening sentences and paragraphs. They make us ask questions, they reveal curious characters, settings and/or actions. Take the opening to John Grisham’s Camino Island. We wonder who this impostor is, what their role will be in the heist that is referred to in the chapter title. Why would a professor of American literature’s name come in handy?

Secondly, we have the chilling opening of Paula Hawkins’ follow-up to her wildly successful debut, The Girl on the Train. This disturbing prologue describes a murder and we wonder about both the identity of the victim and the motivation of her attackers. The short words of the attackers and the tense, short sentences describing the character’s predicament set a fast, skittering pace from the start.

The third example, by the acclaimed Canadian mystery author Louise Penny, is from the 12th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. We begin immediately with her inspector and main character facing a challenge. A dossier ‘not like all the rest’. This teasing situation, the promise of a case that might flummox even a man of Inspector Gamache’s experience, ropes us in.

Each of these novel openings contains at least one of the following elements of great opening hooks:

  • Unanswered questions
  • Intriguing actions or events
  • Troubling, unusual or suspenseful scenarios

Want to perfect your own hook? Get constructive feedback on your opening line or paragraph on Now Novel now.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

, , ,

  • 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.

  • Jim Porter

    As always, compelling information with great examples.

  • Omari Jackson

    This is interesting and thanks

  • MrBillyD

    My novel titled “We the People Are Good to Eat” begins with the words;
    “The Island City of Manhattan was a single building, twelve miles long, three miles wide and 2,000 levels high.”
    Would anyone be interested in reading further?

    • Sounds interesting. Curious title – is there a Soylent Green -like twist?

      • MrBillyD

        When I originally wrote the novel back in 2009, I posted it on webook.com, where it’s received more than 200 positive reviews. One of them said, “It’s like Soylent Green, meets Logan’s Run, meets Rollerball, meets every teen slasher flick; but done so much better.”
        It’s also been compared to “Hunger Games”.

        The blurb states:
        “In a fatally overpopulated future Earth, all that the people have to eat is each other, and they thank God for every meal.
        “In this world, keeping the population trimmed and the meat quota filled is every citizen’s responsibility. Gladiator type combat games are now a high school sport. This is the students’ way of participating in both the population trimming and meat harvest.
        “A Cheerleader-Warrior Girl discovers that certain things in this world are not the way that everybody believes. Then things begin to change.”

        If you’d like to give it a look, please go to:
        http://www.webook.com/project/More-Meat-to-Eat

        • Interesting mix of influences. Will have a look.

          • MrBillyD

            Thank you. I hope you enjoy the tale.

  • Gary

    “Shadows of kids were running on the yellow curtain.”

    Is this interesting?

    • Does sound good, Gary. Perhaps if it were even more teasing it would be more hooky, e.g. ‘The[/their] shadows ran along the yellow curtain’. That way we’re wondering ‘whose/what shadows?”

    • c-lem1422

      Sorry I posted wrong at first…
      I would be more intrigued by something like

      When the yellow curtain got pulled, the shadows of the kids went with it.

  • Thabo Mooke

    I am researching for a work of fiction set on South Africa’s 60s period and have worked on the outline of the novel. And to my surprise these lines struck the back of my mind for the opening of the manuscript; ‘At 41 Professor Suzie Viljoen had given up all hope of ever becoming a mother. Her desire for motherhood had also evaporated, and so had the excruciating ache.’ Wondering if this would hook anyone.

    • Hi Thabo. I’m sure it would hook readers interested in motherhood or simply interested in learning more about this character and her development. The fact you mention a turning point does already give the character a struggle or challenge so there’s already a sense of stakes.

  • Emi Asakura

    I know it is not very good, but how can I improve…
    “Leo refused to leave my mind when I laid in bed every night. I try and try and try not to think of him, but… it never works. ”
    maybe more like…
    “Leo was the only thing I thought about when I stared into the dark. I want to let my mind wander elsewhere, but… ”
    I am only twelve but have a passion for writing. Thank you.

    • Hi Emi,

      The third example is maybe the strongest because there’s more of a sense of setting. The second part could be tweaked a little, for less repetition (e.g. ‘I closed my eyes, wishing I could forget, but there he was, even behind my eyelids.’)

      Just a suggestion. Vary the language a little, but you’re on the right track and it’s great that you’re passionate about writing. Keep it up!

      • Emi Asakura

        Thank you

    • c-lem1422

      Maybe try something like this, Emi,

      Some boys just can’t take “no” for an answer. Leo’s one of them. Despite the fact I’ve told him to get lost, he keeps coming back, night after night, as I lay innocently sleeping in the comfort of my own bed. I wish he’d leave me alone once and for all. I mean, who keeps giving this boy permission to invade my dreams every night?

      • Emi Asakura

        Thank you. this helped a lot.
        The character has that I had imagine has this exact personality.

        • c-lem1422

          Glad to hear… I could see you wanting to say something like that in the 3 paragraphs you shared. Sometimes, a second eye can see it, staring right at you on the page. It’s harder when we’re closer to our characters, sometimes.

          Good luck. I’d love to read what you do with it.

          Cynthia

      • Thanks for the great suggestion, Cynthia.

  • Elaine Howell

    Hi Bridget, My name is Elaine and I am new to the discussion board! I am currently in the process of writing my first Christian novel – completing chapter two a few days ago 🙂

    • Hi Elaine – thanks for sharing this. I’m glad to hear you’re making progress, keep at it.

  • Elaine Howell

    At this point, I am brainstorming chapter three perfect first line sentence. Chapter three title: Hope For The Hopeless.
    Which sentence creates an inviting entry point for chapter three?
    1. Several years later, as I started community college in Connecticut, my twisted hopeless attitude towards life vanished.

    2. Hope is a positive belief of a positive outcome towards life, on the other hand, a hopeless attitude is a disconnection to one’s basic thoughts that reflects doubts and fears. A Hopeful attitude changes us for the better as we learn to trust God’s plans over our lives.

    • The first option is the stronger, I’d say, since it gives us some information about setting and simply states a change that makes us want to know more (what caused her attitude to change?). The second is a little too much on the telling side of things, reading as quite didactic/teaching. I’d say the sense of story in the first is much more inviting. Hope this helps!

  • TruthBGnown

    Bridget, Would these summary bullet points also be true when it comes to a new chapter (given the new chapter isn’t a continuation of an existing scene or setting)? My first chapter is an historic flashback, and I understand that the reader must be “grabbed” right away. But wouldn’t I do the same thing again in chapter two when the novel shifts to present day? In action/thriller/mystery genres wouldn’t chapter endings on cliffhangers also transition well into a new chapter with your stated tenets? E.g.: Cliffhanger, hook, cliffhanger hook? I finished my first novel and it needs MUCH work. Love your blog!!!

    • Hi there! Thank you, and thanks for asking this. You can off course have a succession of cliffhangers and hooks (this is the principle behind many gripping thriller novels). Just make sure it doesn’t become too repetitive or formulaic. A little bit of asymmetry of plot and structure here and there will avoid it seeming like there’s a predictable template behind the curtains. Hope that helps!

  • Ohireime Nonso Osiki

    Hi Bridget. Kindly read and let me know if this is a good opening for my novel, Not All Wounds;

    Everything was falling apart. It was nearly a year since he rented the place in upscale Victoria Island. Before then, he’d concluded the move would at the very least earn him better job opportunities, this slender terrain that linked the Lekki Peninsula and Lagos Island. The apartment was sandwiched between stately homes of the filthy rich and derelict houses of the not so rich, separated by overgrown trees that sprang from warm, dry sand. What remained of the verandas were brick lattices and flaking stucco. All the houses had paths to the road but the second to the last house had immediately appealed to Chico. It belonged to a Hausa man who moved his jewelry business to the Island and offered up all six apartments in the duplex at a not so cut-throat price. Chico had come across it while looking for where to stay, and since renting a separate law office would have been gravely costly, the practical thing was to settle for one apartment to satisfy both needs. But things didn’t go as planned…

    • I think it’s a great hook, Ohireime – I like how you start with a move to a new location for your character. It creates a strong sense of a story set in motion. Keep going!

      • Ohireime Nonso Osiki

        Thank you, Bridget. I really appreciate your assessment.

  • Bob DCosta

    Hi Bridget. This is really helpful. Thanks for posting this.

    I have the opening of my mss, TWO PLAITS — the tale of a kidnapped girl. Could you comment on it?:

    And then the rebels came.

    It was past two at night when the urge to
    attend to toilet necessities overpowered me. Ours was a one-roomed house with a
    cemented yard surrounded by walls and the main door leading to the small yard
    was on the other end. I was about eleven years and some months then. I
    unlatched the door and went out, crossed the mud path and squatted behind the
    row of bushes across our house. The full moon threw a silver glow around the
    row of huts and covered the green field behind and to my right and left with
    silver.

    My eyes fell to the right. A red glow lit up
    the sky just above the row of huts and shut out the stars and my eyes fell on
    someone at the long iron pole. He was bound, and he was struggling. A man stood
    in front of him with a flaming stick in his hand, and he had a red checked
    towel tied around his waist. He held a canister and sprinkled the liquid from
    it on the man on the pole. Then he touched the stick on the man. In an instant
    fire leapt up licking him. Suddenly shouts rang in the air. “Burn them down.
    Burn them down.” The shouts were familiar. Several days ago they had burnt my
    uncle’s house and rows of other houses in the next town. And now I could see
    the group of men, torches in their hands. They rushed into one house, dragged
    the men by their hands and hair and severed their heads from the neck. A woman
    came out crying, but they only ignored her, but when she screamed, “What did my
    husband do?” they slapped her right and left. She fell, clutching on to her
    child. Other people from the neighbouring houses rushed out. The rebels tied
    the women and children together and threw burning torches on them. They wails
    and screams tore the sky into two. Then they threw the fiery sticks on the
    roofs of the huts. Immediately fire spread on the thatch like an angry dragon
    out from a Chinese fairy tale book. They were around twenty odd huts away,
    beside the pond, the rebels, and were approaching towards our house. I got up
    and sprinted. My frock caught on to a thorny bush and tore, but I did not care.
    I woke up my parents. We grabbed whatever little we could and rushed out. At
    the turning of the muddy path, mother looked back. The rebels rushed out of our
    house and threw the torches on the roof. Mother gave a loud wail but as soon as
    the first noise came out, father had cupped her mouth tight. “Forget
    everything,” he said. And we ran. My mother tripped over a stone but she got up
    and continued running.

  • Steph

    Hi Bridget, could you provide some advice on this opening. I’m in danger of over editing, adding etc it’s called Darkness Rising.

    ‘There is a darkness in us all, my son.’ The last words of his alpha, before he too disappeared, catch on his breath.

    Death’s stench wafts up through Mons Shalamardom’s dungeon vents into the tower chamber. It’s enough to make Odin want vomit what little food he has left in his starved stomach. He squints in the dim; warm liquid trickling down his hind leg.
    His ears tremble, slick against his dapple-grey wolf’s coat. Rising, like the presence of death itself, her nascent shadow looms into focus. He finches. She can sense his presence; he knows it – he knows it all too well.
    ‘I can smell your fear,’ snaps Callos.
    Callos’ hands thunder together before electric tendrils fizz out from her prong-like fingers. In a melee, an earthquake type rumble builds up to its crescendo: the glass chandeliers ting together, casting rainbow patterns upon the dark sweeping walls. Odin quivers back further into blackness. Ancient sorcerer’s paintings and stone statues smash together into dusty smoke. From the centre of the chamber, in the maelstrom, her dark magic hardback bursts up from the stone shelf, its parchment rustles airborn.
    The grand golden doors slams shut, sending tremors around the room, cornering him in her wrath.
    He wants to howl but dare not. Does she mean it? No, surely she will never harm them. She loves him…doesn’t she?
    ‘You’ve failed me, Odin Malamute.’ His heart sinks.

    • Hi Steph – lovely remnants of Norse myth in your naming (e.g. Odin), and some great word choices (‘maelstrom’ is a good one). You’ve created a clear mood of tension. Perhaps ‘rainbow patterns’ unnecessarily lightens or conflicts with the otherwise dark tone? Perhaps look out for any descriptions that border on hyperbole (e.g. statues smashing into smoke – depending on material, it would likely require a lot of force to smash statues into smoke!)

      Why not submit it for group feedback in the member area of the site? It’s helpful getting multiple insights as you can weigh and compare feedback points. Thanks for sharing!

  • MrBillyD

    Here is the opening of my partially completed novel “To Keep the World Intact”; which is about “A 21st Century world, where Aztec human sacrifices are generally accepted as a necessity.”
    I hope this posting isn’t taking up too much space.
    xxxxxxxx

    He wrote on the back of a postcard.

    “I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico, on the first Tuesday in February. I’m enjoying very warm days, very hot food and good cold beer. Wish you were here.
    Frank.”

    23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

    This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

    Local people from all over the region had been crowding into the city to witness the event; so had a very large number of turistas. Not one hotel room in town was now available. Frank was glad he’d made his airline and hotel reservations back in October.

    The time was around 8 in the evening. The postcard he’d just signed lay on the table beside a painted glass lamp containing a burning candle. He sat in an outdoor restaurante, beneath the ceiling of a brightly lit arcade, across the street from the Main Plaza of Oaxaca Mexico. The local people called the Plaza “El Zocalo”.

    Frank was seated alone, having a dinner of burritos pollos, aros, y frijoles refritos, along with a mug of Cerveza Tres Equis. The sound of performing mariachis came from tables at the far end of the arcade. They sang the traditional “Los Tres Caballeros”. Across the street in the Zocalo, a different band performed “Guadalajara”. The different tunes performed at the same time filled the warm evening air with melodious confusion.

    At the table next to his, three stylishly dressed Oaxacan girls in their late teens sat chatting amiably while drinking cervezas of the Bohemia brand. They had straight black hair, tan complexions and full, firm figures.

    One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

    Everyone in the seats around them looked where she was pointing. Frank saw an unsmiling, casually dressed middle aged Mexican hombre, with thinning hair and glasses, moving around the tables in the arcade. If he hadn’t been pointed out, Frank would not have noticed him.

    As the man walked past the stylish girls’ table, the three spoke respectfully. “Buenas noches Cacique.”

    He replied, still not smiling. “Buenas noches senoritas.”

    He continued moving past the other tables, where all the local people respectfully greeted the Supreme High Priest of all the Aztecs

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This