Choosing an Opening for Your Novel

The opening of your story is one of the most important aspects of the whole business. First impressions are key. In this post, I’m going to explore the dos and don’ts of different types of openings.

The Opening Line

The opening line is the one of the most difficult sentences you’ll ever write and rewrite. It needs to grab, entertain, and pull a reader in. Perfect your first line when you have finished the entire novel.

Remember, when you’re writing your drafts, nobody will see them except you. It doesn’t matter if your first line is rubbish at first!

Let’s have look at some of the most famous first lines in literature.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael”

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

1984 - George Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” 

Prologue

A lot of people like to start with a prologue - it’s a very helpful technique for the writer as they get to ease into a story. Also, the reader already has questions before the story even starts.

 

I’m all for a prologue; a little teaser of what’s to come - but most agents hate them. Agents want to be instantly submerged into a compelling and relevant opening chapter.

 

If, in the end, you decide to have to a prologue, be careful not to make your prologue a lazy info dump, giving chunks of back-story.

Description - Starting your novel with the setting.

J R R Tolkien does this brilliantly. We know the precise details of Bilbo’s home before anything happens. This kind of description subtly tells us all about Hobbiton and the world of a hobbit. Tolkien does also have an intriguing and brilliant first line:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Bear in mind that a lot of people turn their noses up at The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings because it feels like there is more description than plot. You need to be careful to keep a good equilibrium.

 

A typical description mistake:

‘The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.’

 

Don’t use flowery descriptive language just for the sake of it!

 

Whether you write the opening for your novel first or not, you need to have a think about how you’ll start.

Read novels in your genre and get a feeling for the common ways of starting.

Prologue with a murder?

In the middle of action?
Long descriptive setting?

With a letter or diary entry?

By reading lots you’ll soon discover the cliches to avoid.

The opening is not easy - it will need a lot of work!


Check out this article for advice straight from agents.