One of the most important parts of a story is the very beginning. Often, readers will pick up a book in a bookshop or a library and read the first page or so to determine if they will read on. Similarly, agents and publishers will base a lot of their initial judgments on the first five or ten pages. This post will explore what makes a good start to a novel and what doesn’t, providing some ideas and thoughts as to how to improve your opening.
What Readers Want
First of all, I want to talk about what readers are really looking for in the opening of a novel. Some might say that you need tension or action, some might say you need mystery. This will of course be different depending on genre and on style. But while there are a wide variety of things, many of them can be boiled down to three main areas:
Let’s consider all three of these:
A Dramatic Question
The dramatic question is what drives the concept of your novel. It is the mystery that is to be answered. If you can have this appear in the first five pages, or even the first few lines, then you are on the right track.
This is usually posed as something bizarre or different to the real world. As something different to everyday life.
Look at the opening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Ostensibly, it is just a description of Vernon Dursley coming home from work, but laced into the description is a bunch of strange things:
This all happens in the first five pages. It sets up a big dramatic question - who is Harry and how are all these strange things happening? The book then answers this by introducing us to the world of Hogwarts and magic.
The difference between what JK Rowling and less accomplished authors would do, and a mistake I see very often, is that they would spend much more time establishing normalcy before introducing the bizarre twist or the dramatic question. Many authors think they need a whole chapter to establish normal routines before something happens. You really don’t. There’s a great expression: get in late, leave early. This very much applies here. Get in as late as you can if you want your story to have impact.
This idea is even better when it is achieved in the first line. Let’s look at a few great first lines and see how they present a dramatic question.
Clear, straightforward and compelling. It has a double question in it: why is Lydia dead? And why don’t they know this? More importantly, who are they?
This is in a similar vein. It also asks a double question. Why is Bunny dead and what is the gravity of their situation? These are clearly two different issues.
This is a classic example of posing a dramatic question. The capitalisation of both characters lends them dramatic weight and we need to read on to find out what has caused this chase.
Less character based, but still asking a question. How did this small thing lead to such a big thing?
Take a look at your first line. Does it ask a question? If you find that you don’t have a significant dramatic question in the first chapter of your novel at all, then you need to be considering a pretty major rewrite.
The second thing that people look for is an interesting character. It is hugely important to give the readers character early on. Stories are about characters, after all, not settings or plots or magic systems. Don’t make us wait until we get one.
Establishing interesting characters can be done in a number of ways. One is to pose an interesting character conflict. Another is to establish a very clear sense of voice - particularly if it is written in first person.
Let’s look at some more opening lines:
This is a wonderful first line, as it achieves both a dramatic question (why is he facing the firing squad?), but also gives us voice and character conflict. We want to understand why he would remember that day as his last, just before his death. We have a hint of a father-son relationship that we know will be explored. It deepens the character and makes him more complex.
Now this one is a good example, because the dramatic question isn’t immediately posed. It comes after, but the opening focuses more on character. It carries this character through the use of voice. ‘Call me Ishmael” is an interesting enough sentence construction that it becomes compelling, as is the ‘never mind how long precisely’. And the character conflict of having no money and sailing the world is enough to drive us forward.
The most important thing here is that in the first few pages we need an established character to root for or follow. Stories are about characters. If you have an opening five pages that just describes setting or landscapes, the reader will be lost and, worse than that, bored.
This one is a bit harder to explain. It is one of those things that you know when you see. Great openings have something literary about them. A clever twist of language, structure and setting.
For example, the first few pages of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is beautifully written. The description of the ‘silence of three parts’ is compelling enough just in its prose that we want to read on. Here it is:
'It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.
Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.
The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.
The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.
The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.'
Now, you might say: but he’s just describing the setting of a pub there. Didn’t you just say not to describe setting?
Well, yes. He is describing the setting of a pub. But he’s using it to describe a character. Kote is the focus of the scene, ultimately, and as such is a fascinating character. It still asks a dramatic question pretty quickly too - why is this man waiting to die? The description of setting makes the presentation of Kote - or Kvothe - very interesting.
Putting It All Together
Let’s look, finally, and one of my favourite openings in ages. It is the opening to N.K. Jemisin’s wonderful The Fifth Season. The whole book is a masterpiece, but I’m just going to be exploring the opening here. It does all three of the above with great skill. It is so successful that I’m going to copy most of the first page down here:
‘Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket - except his face, because he is afraid of the dark - and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.
What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.
And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:
He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.
But you need context. Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally.
Here is a land.’
What an opening! Consider just the first line. ‘Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.’ There is a wonderful dramatic question, coupled with fantastic narrative voice that oozes character and reads in a compelling way. That, on its own, would make me read on.
Then it continues and we immediately get character. Not just character, but deep, empathetic character. The line ‘except his face, because he is afraid of the dark’ is so unashamedly moving for so early in a book. It speaks volumes about the relationship between this woman and her dead son. We feel for this unnamed woman, who has lost her child, whose world is ending. She also has internal character conflict clearly defined - two parts of her are explored and are in disagreement with one another about whether he was free (whatever that means, which is another dramatic question).
The prose is also wonderful. The voice is compelling. Describing her reaction to her world ending and the actual world ending as ‘She’s old hat at this by now.” is stunning.
She is correct at the end. We do need context, and she continues to give it to us, and uses it to describe a great fantasy setting. But the key is this: I’m in. I’m so in. In a half a page she has guaranteed that I’d buy the book on the spot.
It is very, very well done.
What Readers Don’t Want
By contrast, let’s think about some of the things that readers don’t want, and mistakes that many budding authors fall into the trap of making. I can think of three main things that are terrible for an introduction:
Firstly, don’t be boring.
A boring first few pages is one that doesn’t do any of the above. It spends too long establishing normalcy before asking us a dramatic question. It doesn’t give us a character to follow early enough. The prose is stilted or otherwise dull and voiceless.
There are many examples of comparatively boring openings even in famous works. The opening to Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, for example, is rubbish. The book itself is fine, in a fun, fantasy escapist way, and I quite enjoyed it, but the opening… oh dear.
Here it is:
‘The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face had a set, placid look, and only the grey eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior. He was a young man, though his stocky build and grizzled brown hair and shaggy eyebrows made him look much older. He wore the loose fitting work clothes of the Vale people and in the pack he carried were several metal implements that rolled and clanked loosely against each other.’
Okay, so this opening isn’t completely irredeemable. It gives us a character, at least, even if the most interesting thing about him is a ‘the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.’ But other than that, I don’t care. The setting isn’t interesting enough to warrant so much description early on. The character is essentially boring, has no apparent conflict, and nothing happens. Compared to either Rothfuss or Jemisin above, it is not even in the same league.
He does, at least, introduce a conflict in about four or five pages, but there is a reason no one is listing this as their favourite book openings. It is, quite frankly, boring. If I picked this up in a book shop today, I wouldn’t buy it. If you took away the character, it would be unreadably dire.
I’m not saying there isn’t place for lovely setting description in your novel. There is. N.K. Jemisin describes some of the best settings I’ve read in a fantasy novel. But she doesn’t do in the first line.
Contrived or Cliche Openings
I’m sure you’ve seen it before, but a short list of cliche openings to stories include:
Don’t do any of these. They aren’t interesting or compelling or new. I could go into a longer post as to why these are not great, but many other blogs have already done that in the past and that isn't so much the focus of this post.
Many writers think opening their novels in the middle of conflict, or in media res, if you will, is exciting. It plunges the reader straight into the narrative. Often this is done by throwing you in the middle of a physical action scene (a war or battle of some kind) or some heated dialogue or argument.
These can be done, but there are dangers with both.
Firstly, the problem with an action scene as an opening is that you are missing the point of a good action scene. A really good action scene works because we care enough about the characters to be concerned what happens to them. We want to know if they will live, die, be injured, kill someone, etc.
If you start with an action scene, and you haven’t established character yet, the reader simply won’t care. Everything that makes an action scene good will be lost. If we don’t care about what happens to the characters, because we don’t know them, then the action scene (regardless of how exciting you think it is) will be boring.
They will also be confusing, as the reader may not understand why they are fighting or what is going on. This becomes a particular issue when you introduce too many characters all at once.
This is more pronounced with dialogue. If you open with dialogue, you run the risk of ‘talking heads’ syndrome, where the reader can’t work out who is saying what and to whom. This can be fixed with judicious use of dialogue tags, but I’d recommend against it. Once again, like battles, heated dialogue works better when we know the characters already.
A Note on Prologues
Many books start with prologues. It is a thing that happens. Try not to start one with yours.
If you want to get published in this day and age, prologues are pretty much a no-no for most agents. They hate them.
Why? Well, they just want to get into the story. They don’t want to invest in a character that won’t be a major player later on. It’s frustrating reading a first chapter that establishes certain things, then just seems to… end.
Look at what agents have said about prologues in the past:
“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
– Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
– Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
– Laurie McLean, Fuse Literary
When opening your story, think about the following:
See you in two weeks!
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.