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.
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)
‘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