How to begin a novel: 8 ways to captivate

How to Begin a Novel | Now Novel

How satisfying is a novel that sinks its hooks in from the first page? Knowing how to begin a novel so that you captivate readers from the first chapter is key to writing a publishable book. Here are 8 ways to begin your book compellingly:

1. Begin a novel by making your reader need answers

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. By the second ,we know the narrator is complicit. Yet we don’t know why. We don’t know exactly what happened so we read on for answers.

Make sure that by the end of your first paragraph there is a ‘Why?’ (or who/what/where/when) your reader needs answered. Consider these examples of book beginnings from diverse genres:

‘There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.’ – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

In this sci-fi example by Ursula K. Le Guin, we are already asking ‘why is the wall so important?’ Here, another beginning, this time by murder mystery author Louise Penny also leaves us with questions:

‘Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.’ – Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning (2016)

We wonder why Gamache wishes to trap the words in the dossier inside, as well as the nature of its contents. These two beginnings show a crucial aspect of first lines – they reveal and conceal, luring us in.

Beginning a new novel - Le Clezio quote | Now Novel

2: Begin with settings that convey tone and mood

Setting is a crucial component of how to begin a novel so your reader stays curious. Setting:

  • Affects character motivations and actions (e.g. a character from a small town feels stifled so they move to a larger city)
  • Affects tone and mood (a character is travelling through a dangerous area when their car breaks down – the character’s location contributes threatening mood and tone)
  • Sets out what is possible (and what isn’t) in your world (e.g. a character stranded in a desert can’t simply get water from a tap)

At the start of your novel, play with these functions of setting. Say, for example, your main character’s car breaks down at night in a dangerous area. How will place influence what they do next? Might they lock the doors?

Beginning a novel with setting description: Examples

Here are examples of novel beginnings that create atmospheric setting:

‘The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of the green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called.’ José Saramago, Blindness (1995)

This beginning creates the visual assault of a busy street crossing, the coloured lights, the movement of cars. It’s a fitting, bewildering setting, full of visual description and colours, for a novel where the inability to see is one of the primary themes and metaphors.

‘I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolatey eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.’ David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014)

The setting (and the teenage character’s attitude towards it) suggests her frustration, and the way she describes the setting beyond her window and imagines this ‘Vinny’ character’s body and laugh suggests the character is bored with home and wants the excitement of an ‘elsewhere’. Here, the way the character immediately imagines somewhere else foreshadows teenager Holly Sykes’ decision to run away.

[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: Start a novel with interesting dialogue

Many novels manage to grab our attention without immediately launching into action or dialogue.

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 a novel beginning using courtroom dialogue that immediately creates questions:

  “State your name, please.”
“Armand Gamache.”
“And you are the head of the Sûreté du Québec?”
“The Chief Superintendent, oui.”
Gamache sat upright on the wooden chair. It was hot. Sweltering, really, on this July morning. He could taste perspiration from his upper lip and it was only just ten o’clock. It was only just starting.

Here, in her Chief Inspector Gamache book Glass Houses (2017), Penny starts with immediate dialogue that shows Gamache sweating under examination in the witness box. If we’re readers familiar with previous books in Penny’s series, we wonder what has happened this time, to lead the detective to testify in court.

The dialogue is also a neat, succinct character introduction – we quickly learn who the character being questioned is, and his profession. The description of the heat conveys Gamache’s discomfort, adding tension to the scene.

4. Launch right into gripping action

Opening a book with gripping action is one way to throw your reader into an exciting, tense situation. It could be something as simple as a telephone call, as in this example from Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985):

‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’

Usually, a ‘wrong number’ phone call would end at the caller’s realization they’ve got the wrong person. Yet Auster’s ‘It was a wrong number that started it’ makes us wonder, ‘Started what?’

Here’s a more action-oriented beginning:

‘Cash isn’t the only thing I take from my father’s study when I leave home. I take a small old gold lighter – I like the design and feel of it – and a folding knife with a really sharp blade.’  Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (2005).

We immediately wonder why the character is looting their father’s study, and what purpose they’ll have for a sharp knife.

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, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling what your character does. You can show action without any immediate explanation, creating more perplexed questions.

5: 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 part of their motivation for mistreating Harry:

‘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.’

Here, fear is a a big, emotional motivator explaining the Dursleys’ nervous mistrust of their ward.

Character goals and motivations are core to character and story development. Introducing goals and motivations early gives your story an immediate 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.

6: Foreshadow future tensions and uncertainties

Obstacles 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, however, creates anticipation and suspense.

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 foreshadowed story event doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a murder, of course. Your first chapter could introduce two characters who share obvious physical 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, creates a compelling start. Enigma and mystery are fundamental to satisfying stories.

Nicole Krauss - Beginning a story - quote | Now Novel

7: Write a teasing 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 (1949):

‘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 teases us with perplexing information.

The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is particularly teasing:

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’

The words seem like an oxymoron. How could burning be a ‘pleasure’? The sentence is a fitting opening for a book about a dystopian society that burns books. It only emerges later on the first page that this is the type of burning being described.

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 good or bad? 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.

8. 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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