Lawrence Block, an American crime writer, says the first page of a novel sells the story and the first chapter sells the book. Doesn’t give you much time to hook a reader, does it?
As the writer, you first have to establish the plot before you decide where to start your novel. The novice writer has a tendency to begin in the distant past. Somehow Charles Dickens got away with opening with his protagonist’s birth in David Copperfield, but I wouldn’t advise using that gambit. Craft Teacher Dwight Swain recommends starting on the day that’s different. Begin with a change in your protagonist’s life, an event that can’t be ignored.
All good fiction is about disturbance to a character’s inner and outer life.
A captivating story is an account of how someone deals with change or a significant threat to his status quo. Fiction is the process of struggle and change, external change leading to internal. The inciting incident, which may be part of the hook or come soon after, sets the plot in motion. The protagonist’s goal is to restore balance in his life, but that requires action that will test his resolution and his strength of character.
All the opening has to do is compel the reader to turn the page.
Start with a hook that surprises the reader and asks at least one story question.
Here’s how I began my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in:
I wasn’t there when they dug up the bones at the old drive-in theater but I heard about them within the hour. In a small town, word travels like heat lightning across a parched summer sky. Irma Schmidt phoned Aunt Bliss and delivered the news with such volume that her voice carried across the kitchen to where I was sitting.
After hanging up the receiver, Aunt Bliss peered at me through her thick bifocals. “With all those farms around there, they could be the bones of some animal.”
I picked up the coffee mug, drained it, then set it on the worn Formica table. “They could be.”
Pursing her lips, she stared at me. “I know what you’re thinking, but more than one person disappeared that summer.”
“Yes,” I said reflectively, “that’s true.” But my heart was beating faster.”
I began with a sentence that I hoped would snag the reader, show that the discovery of a skeleton rattled my protagonist and introduce the story question, “Whose bones are in that grave?” It turned out that the latter also became the central dramatic question, a critical element that drives the action, ties the plot together and must be answered by the end of the novel.
In the story, the discovery of the bones triggers the protagonist’s memories of the summer when she was twelve years old. I used a frame structure, in which the book starts when the protagonist is an adult, flashes back to her childhood and ends with a forward flash to the present day.
Writing teachers often disparage opening a novel with a flashback, but it can be used to good effect in a prologue where the author presents a short passage of the most significant action. It should not be so vague or confusing that the reader can’t figure out what’s going on. But readers don’t need to know all the details of a prominent businessman’s financial dealings before they see his fully-dressed body floating facedown in his swimming pool.
Here are a few of my favorite openings to novels:
“We started clearing the field with shovels and buckets and of course our cupped gloved hands. The idea was to not break any frozen parts of her away.”
--Girls, Frederick Busch
Now there’s a disturbing hook that should grip the reader.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides opens with a situation that prompts several questions:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese— the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.
Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, piques the readers’ interest with a striking image that establishes a menacing tone:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, walls were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Horror, fantasy and sci fi rely heavily on setting, so this strategy is often used in those genres.
Here are some more tips on opening your novel:
• Begin “in medias res.” That’s Latin for “start in the middle.” Toss your reader directly into the action.
• Engage the senses asap. A vivid or an emotional opening will immediately capture the reader.
• Don’t start with a dream—unless you can make it exceptionally different from all the other novels that have begun with dreams.
• If you start with dialogue, make sure it grabs your reader by the throat.
Here’s an example:
“Ever kill anyone?” the psychiatrist asked.
Bob looked directly at him. “How many people do you have in mind?”
• Deliver what you promise. Follow your dynamite hook with a good story that relates to and explains the opening.
• Here’s a final tip. About the time someone says a technique won’t work, someone else comes along and demonstrates its effectiveness.
Have a favorite opening to a novel? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.