How to start a novel: First chapter examples that hook

How to start a novel: First chapter examples that hook

Mastering how to start a novel with promise, intrigue or riveting suspense is important for hooking your reader fast.

Read first chapter examples from diverse genres that give eight insights on how to write better beginning sentences and paragraphs:

How to start a novel that grabs attention: 8 ideas

  1. Raise questions with your first line
  2. Intrigue with teasing actions
  3. Immerse readers in immediate setting
  4. Promise excitement or exception
  5. Establish your story’s tone
  6. Begin with the before
  7. Share an unusual image or thought
  8. Give your own spin to a familiar theme

Let’s explore these ideas about beginning sentences and pages further, with help from examples in first chapters across genres:

1. Raise questions with your first line

In deciding how to start a novel, there are countless options. The task may seem daunting for that exact reason.

However the beginning of your story has one job above all others: Earning your reader’s curiosity and desire to continue.

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.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

The first sentence of Marquez’s acclaimed novel creates questions.

  • 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?

In a single sentence, Marquez makes us curious about the Colonel, while also implying a very sticky end.

The mix of adventure and danger promised leads us onward, into Marquez’s multi-generational saga.

2. Intrigue with teasing actions

George Orwell, another master of how to start a novel, gives us this example:

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

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Orwell begins with setting and a strange event: Clocks striking an unlikely hour.

The action is teasing because it seems impossible. Modern clocks usually strike up to 12 times, beginning again from ‘one’ for one o’clock.

In the 14th and 15th Centuries, though, 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.

How can you make your novel’s opening actions teasing? What are characters (or objects) doing that they don’t usually do, or shouldn’t?

Italo Calvino quote on story

3. Immerse readers in immediate setting

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. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

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 that ‘124’ is the address of a house haunted by ghosts and the trauma of slavery. We soon understand why Morrison uses the unsettling, contradictory-seeming term ‘a baby’s venom’.

Each section of the novel begins with a variation on ‘124 was…’ creating a poetic cycling back, a sense of gravitation towards the house and it’s troubled history.

More recent bestselling novels have first lines that also create intrigue via immediate setting.

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.

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (2015)

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.

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 murder). Nothing raises curiosity like the macabre. Newspaper empires were founded on this.

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4. Promise excitement or exception

The first paragraph of a story so often gives us the ‘before’ state. It tells the reader ‘this is how things are’ (or were, before everything changed).

Often, change is almost immediate. This hooks readers in faster, because there is a sense of adventure already stirring.

You might allude to an excitement or exception in your opening scenario. For example, mystery author Louise Penny implies why one dossier is unlike others:

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.

Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning (2016)

Why is this dossier unlike the others? What is exceptional about this case?

The dossier is squeezed shut and we want to open it and carry on reading.

5. Establish your story’s tone

The first sentence of a novel, the first sentence of any paragraph, even, is an opportunity to direct your reader’s focus.

It’s an opportunity to say ‘this is the mood’, or ‘this is the feeling’. It’s an opportunity to establish tone.

Will what follows be melancholic or cheerful? Hilarious or nail-biting?

E. Annie Proulx establishes a somewhat bleak tone, for example, quickly, in her Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News:

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.

E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

This opening establishes the tone of the story well.

Quoyle’s life, from spousal infidelity to roughing it in Newfoundland with his young children, is shown in all its raw suffering over subsequent chapters. The opening sentences are thus apropos in suggesting difficulty as well as survival, the ‘camouflaging torment’ of a stoic protagonist.

6. Begin with the before

There’s a reason Cinderella stories and makeover shows alike have a ‘before and after’ structure. There’s something timelessly engrossing about a process of transformation.

What will undergo transformation in your novel? You might look for how to start a novel so that this change is prefigured in some way.

For example, 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.

Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude

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.

There is a clear ‘before’ (and an implicit promise we will encounter momentous change, which we do).

This type of story opening gives us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. It’s thus common in historical fiction. There’s an inherent sense of excavation, of an impossible return to a distant past.

What interesting ‘before’ could herald the interesting changes in your story?

7. Share an unusual image or thought

Beginning sentences so often share what is unusual and thus hyper specific. Why the one straggler isn’t fleeing the city like all the others after an evacuation order. Why a truant kid decided to skip school.

Orhan Pamuk’s evocative memoir-meets-travelogue Istanbul about the city of his birth opens with a striking thought from childhood:

From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul (2005)

Whether writing fiction or memoir, similar principles apply to how to start.

Novel beginnings share curious images, questions and thoughts. The author imagining his own double, living somewhere in his city of birth, invites us into a child’s world of wonder and imagination.

8. Give your own spin to a familiar theme

If you’ve ever sat down and thought, ‘I can’t start my story this way, that’s been done to death,’ you would not be the first.

The truth is that we are bound to encounter similar themes in stories’ openings across genres.

For example, how common is it for a murder mystery to begin with a buried body’s coordinates (or lack thereof)?

Instead of agonizing over originality, give a familiar theme your own spin.

For example, Naomi Novik’s high fantasy novel Uprooted opens with a fresh spin on the common fantasy trope of dragons:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years.

Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015)

How can you take a common image, theme or trope and turn it on its head in your own story opening?

Learn how to start a novel in easy steps using helpful, guiding outlining tools.

58 Replies to “How to start a novel: First chapter examples that hook”

  1. What a great article! A lot of useful information. I’m currently in the process of writing a story based off of Arthurian legends, and I’m not quite sure if my opening paragraph “hooks” people or not. To me it reads too much like a fairytale, like I’m only telling the story. Maybe you’d be able to advise me?

    With the christening of a future ruler, comes the first step in beginning a new era for a kingdom. The young prince begins his journey to king, guided by his elders, but also by his own beliefs that will develop as he slowly grows into a man. The christening, which is celebrated as soon as circumstances will allow after birth, is where it will commence. But with new birth, comes old death. There is no greater example of this than in the tale of how the Once and Future King’s throne was passed along to him.

  2. I know this is an old post, but if anyone sees this, would they mind reading my opening? I can’t tell if it’s too short before falling away into the action. (Dark fantasy by the way)

    I was running out of time. I was running as fast as I could, but the mountainous slope pushed me back a pace for every leap I took. It wouldn’t be long now until it moved again, and we would all be screwed. The tower was within shouting distance, and on open ground. I just had to make it a few more feet up. The sting of the cold mountain air sliced at my lungs, and oaken whips lashed at my robes as I took a last, pained leap onto flat ground.

    1. Hi Zoop, with pleasure.

      Running and the sense of urgency implied by a time limit are good hook elements. It’s intriguing (but also potentially confusing) that the mountan slope moves of its own accord (as a geological feature such as this would typically be static unless there is a rockfall, avalanche, earthquake or some other situation creating movement of the terrain itself) so this detail could maybe be a little bit clearer.

      Overall it creates good suspense for why your character and the yet-unnamed others will be ‘screwed’ and what key to avoiding this negative outcome the tower provides. Good use of sensory description too in describing the cold mountain air’s sting and the other physical discomforts of the narrator’s which add to a sense of urgent action.

      I hope this helps! Keep writing 🙂

  3. Hi! It’s short but I’d really appreciate some feedback, so here it is:
    My name is Cyra. I have no last name that I can recall and was born in a town whose name and location I can’t remember, if I ever knew them in the first place. I spent the majority of my childhood running away. From what is a complicated question that would require me to tell you the story of how my life truly began, which was not the day I was born but in fact 15 years later.

    1. Hi Grace, thank you for sharing your opening lines. I like the sense of mystery you’ve created about the struggle in Cyra’s past that resulted in her spending most of her childhood running away. I’d suggest changing ‘the majority of’ to ‘most’ (‘I spent most of my childhood running away…’) and the sentence structure in ‘From what is a complicated question that would require me…’ is a little wobbly (perhaps ‘It’s a complicated question that would…’ so that it has a finite verb).

      I hope this helps! Curious to find out more about Cyra’s story so it works well as a hook.

  4. Hello, could someone please give me some feedback on my opening sentence? please and thank you x
    ‘Kate’s first memory was the galaxy opposing her fear.’
    so she has no memory and she is going to be in a forest at night where it is going to have a supernatural feel. Does this starter sentence make sense? And do you have any ideas what I would write about in the first paragraph? sorry and thank you x

    1. Hi Lexie, with pleasure!

      I like the idea behind it. ‘Kate’s first memory’ is perhaps a little ambiguous (the reader could take this to mean the earliest memory she has since infancy, rather than returning memories). If you meant to suggest the first thing she can remember with the ‘blank slate’ she has, you could say ‘The first thing Kate could remember…’ or ‘The first memory that came flooding back…’ or something along those lines.

      Then for ‘the galaxy opposing her fear’ could this maybe be a little more concrete/specific? For example, in what way the galaxy ‘opposes’ her fear. Is ‘opposes’ the clearest possible word? Or does it perhaps ‘ease’ her fear (and what aspect of the galaxy does this, how vast it is, something specific about it?). Although it’s good to create mystery and intrigue, the idea of a galaxy opposing a person’s fear might be a little tricky concept-wise for the reader to wrap their head around.

      As for the first paragraph, seeing as she’s in a forest at night you could continue to describe the forest for scene-setting, perhaps suggesting in the process what about this place/mood/setting makes her think of something so cosmic as the galaxy (for example, can Kate see the stars through the treetops?). You’re on the right track! Keep going.

  5. I don’t have an opening because I can’t think of one. However, my story is based on a boy who is an introvert with trust issues because of his painful past. The setting is of a modern world but I was also thinking of placing them in the 90’s out of fun. I can’t explain 90’s setting though. The main point of it is to show how loneliness affect introverts sometimes even though they like solitude. Any help? Thank you.

    1. Hi P, thank you for sharing your story challenge. The 90s is an interesting period, and I was a teenager during that time so can remember some cultural trends, such as crazes for ‘boy bands’ and ‘girl bands’ (The Spice Girls, Backstreet, N*Sync and so forth), fashion crazes for camouflage and anything alien-themed, etc.

      When I searched Quora for ideas by searching ‘what characterized the 90s’, people mentioned that these were the early days of cell phones (which have changed everything) and a time of rapid technological change (I remember what a novelty it was when my family got our first CD player). So I would research elements like these (technological and other changes/shifts that defined the era) to create authentic setting.

      Regarding loneliness and introversion, that makes sense – the flipside of enjoying one’s own company is missing others.

      I would suggest brainstorming around his painful past. Specifically what happened, what internal and external conflicts it’s created, and how things will change for your main character (is it a story of friendship, for example, where they meet someone who helps them balance their inwardness with curiosity about the world around them and others?). You have a broad concept, now ask questions about who, what, why, when and where to whittle it into more specifics. I hope this helps!

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