5 Tools for a Strong Novel Opening


A few weeks ago I posted about some of the worst things one could do in a Novel. Now I’m gonna tell you how to do it right. We all know of some books which have our attention from the moment we open the cover. These are some of the best things a writer can do to keep his audience reading past the first few pages.

open-old-book

Here are 5 great ways to start a novel (in no particular order):

5. A Character. I don’t mean a name, description, and dialogue (though that is good to have, too). You need to start fleshing this person out from page one. If the reader finds they are able to identify with a character, they will continue to read to find out what that character does, and to imagine what they would do in that situation. But don’t just tell us about this character, show us his flaws.

A prime example: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent is a character who makes you want to read more about him, then draws you into his zany situation.

4. A story. This one is the trickiest and most liable to backfire. But a good, short story—an anecdote or something related to the real plot—can prime the reader’s interests for the rest of the book. This can be as simple as one line, an epigraph, or can be the whole prologue. Think Fairy Tale: “Once upon a time…” how well it works depends on how you tie the opening narrative to it. Now a good way to muck this up is to drag the intro story on too long or tie it too loosely to your plot. You can also screw up by failing to answer any of the questions you raised. For every question you, as an author raise, you owe your readers an answer AND, as a show of good faith, good authors often answer one of the smaller questions they raised before proceeding with the rest of the book.

A good example of this is a book I recently reviewed: Hammer of Witches. The author starts with a story-within-a-story told by a wise old man, then before the sample ends, shows us that at least part of that story is true. It leaves us wanting more.

3. A promise.  Tell us, in a nutshell, that something interesting will happen. This could be foreshadowing or something as simple as just setting the opening on a plane in flight; the implied promise here is that a plane must return to earth one way or another. You see what I mean? You can promise action in a lot of ways, through setting, dialogue, etcetera, but make sure to be subtle. In the most successful versions of this hook, the reader doesn’t know he’s been promised anything until the author delivers on the action. In the least successful, an author will be too heavy-handed with the promise, or tip his hand and explicitly state what’s going to happen, which eliminates the tension.

A great illustration of this would be The Book Thief. Very ambitious, the prologue describes in some detail key plot scenes that occur later on. It works because he never reveals enough to dull our interest, only enough to whet our curiosity. Bonus points: The narrator, Death, claims to be watching the main character. This is another subtle promise–at some point our MC WILL make contact with death. Again, it raises questions and picks at the reader’s curiosity—does the character herself die or is she touched by death in some other way?

2. Straightforward. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Who doesn’t remember that opening? This one is challenging and, in my opinion, depends upon the author’s voice to carry it through. This may fly in the face of the cardinal rule of “show don’t tell,” but some of the advantages of the straightforward approach include the ability to divulge exposition quickly and an equally quick means to establish tone. On the other hand, one of the very obvious downsides is that too much exposition can be boring to readers. Another easy way to foul up this approach is to give too little information. And another is to drag it on too long.

I mentioned The Hobbit earlier, but Meave Binchy’s A Week in Winter is another book which pulls off this opening very well.

1. In Medias Res. This basically means, ‘in the middle of a scene.’ Start your opening scene after the precipitating event has begun. This is a great way to hook readers because it gives them a tiny-little mystery to solve—what’s going on? Why are these people so angry? Why is she afraid?—while at the same time, injecting a healthy dose of emotion. Giving your readers something small to figure out through subtle exposition is best. The advice on writing scenes is to skip the logical set up; we don’t need you to explain how your character got his keys, went to his car, drove to work, entered the building, then was chewed out by his boss. Start with the flecks of spittle hitting your character’s face as his boss tears into him. We know the rest.

Now this technique can fail quite spectacularly if not executed with caution. One way is to leave out relatable characters. Another common mistake is to leave TOO MUCH a mystery. A good in medias res beginning will focus on great dialogue, mood, and subtle clues from the setting to tell the reader what’s happening.

A good example here is The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s symbolist tale begins as the main character is taken to the scaffold to be placed on trial. It is exposed very quickly that the character should be executed—except she’s pregnant! A great hook.

This is not an exhaustive list and the items upon it aren’t mutually exclusive. Also be sure to remember even the best hook will not keep your readers going unless you’ve got a great plot and characters. The reason why a good hook is important is because so many books with great potential early on will never be read to the point at which they become good. A tragedy, yes, but an author has to keep in mind his book is a whole package and ALL the components must shine.

Leave me a comment–what tools do you use in beginning a novel? Any that I missed?

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