Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.
There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:
- Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
- Establish the genre and/or target audience
- Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
- Introduce the setting
- Give the reader a taste of backstory
- Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.
You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.
Here are some examples:
Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)
I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.
This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?
V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)
Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.
I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.
Naomi Hughes, Afterimage
Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.
At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist.
Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words
My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.
Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.
Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:
1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?
2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities.
3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)
Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.