Jun 22, 2010

The First Chapter of Your Novel

Take a look at some of your favorite books. How do they start? What is the opening sentence/hook? What made you decide to keep on reading it?


What does a good opening do?
A good opening or first page captivates the reader from the very first sentence, and leaves them wanting to read more. Basically, what you want the reader to think after they’ve read your first chapter is, “What’s going to happen next?” It’s that insatiable desire to find out what happens next that urges curious reader to keep reading more. And it shouldn’t be just the first chapter, but EVERY chapter, that piques the reader’s curiosity. Lastly and most importantly—there MUST be conflict. We read about people in trouble; not people with happy perfect lives.

What does a good opening NOT do?
A good opening does NOT give too much information or background. In other words—no info dumps. Good openings do not give too much away—leave just enough out so that your readers will have no choice but to read on to find out what it is that they didn't already know.                                    

Classic Forms of Novel Openings:

1. Food for thought: Open with an abstract or philosophical statement that is relevant to your book’s plot.

Example: Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

2. Meet the hero: Introduce a pivotal character on the first page.

Example: Jack Kerouac, On the Road: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”

3. Show them where it hurts: Get right to the book’s central conflict.

Example: Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

4. Microcosmic anecdote: Tell a small story that serves as an example of the larger story to come.

Example: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: “For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.”

5. Surprisingly mundane: Set an ordinary scene in which one intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary thing happens.

Example: Alice Munro, “Nettles,” Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: “In the summer of 1979, I walked into the kitchen of my friend Sunny’s house near Uxbridge, Ontario, and saw a man standing at the counter, making himself a ketchup sandwich.”

6. Be self-conscious: Tell readers exactly what they’re about to read—whether it’s true or not.

Example: Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: “’Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widdowed Male,’ such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it perambulates.”

7. Begin at the end: Allude to the book’s conclusion—without giving everything away.

Example: Chuck Palahniuk, Rant: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead.”

8. Set the scene: Paint a picture of an important physical location.

Example: Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘Out There.’”

9. Everyday people: Begin with a representative action that defines your character or theme.

Example: Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: “On most days, I enter the Capitol through the basement.”

3 Quick Tips

- Read what you wrote out loud to instantly catch mistakes, or awkward wording.

- Use transitions & sentence variations. For example, don’t start every sentence with “I”. Anything repetitive, unless done intentionally, needs to be edited.

- Write your draft first and edit later.

[*Note: Please vote in the poll on the side of this post.]



  1. This is a great way to show what has worked in the past for novels. I love seeing the opening lines of books, and you've got some good tips, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. @ Amanda- Thanks! I'm glad I could help. :)

  3. This is a super-great post, E! love the sample openers you gave. I've been puzzling over the opening of another WIP I've got, and you really got the wheels turning for me--thanks! :o)

  4. Great post Ezmirelda--ton of food for thought here! It's funny, a really great beginning sort of becomes a thing unto itself and then no one else can ever go that way again... you have "Call me Ismael" and suddently any book that starts with a first person naming themselves becomes a copy of Melville... but this post gives enough angles that you can search for what GOES...

  5. @ LTM- Your welcome, thanks for joining. :)

    @ Tart- I was thinking the same thing! A lot of our ideas on story structure derives from other written works.

  6. Just dropping in again to let you know that I gave you an award today on my blog. :)


  7. Thanks for the link. So great that you got 15K words done last week - that's an amazing pace! I really need to read my story out loud, but I never get any "alone" time at home to do it. Would feel really awkward doing it in front of the family. Anyway, great post.

  8. Good post! Yes, I agree, no info dumps on the first page or two of a novel. On the other hand, nothing is lost to clarity. In other words, don't try to be too mysterious and coy to the point of being confusing and not providing enough facts to understand what's going on! I do many manuscript consultations and that is one of the biggest issues.

  9. @ Catherine-You're so right! If you're too vague the reader might also not want to continue reading. I forgot to add that bit. Thanks for the input Catherine! :)

  10. I just found this on YAlitchat. Great job. Keep doing what you are doing. You are on your way. Best of luck.


Related Posts with Thumbnails