Your Novel’s Opening Sentence Is SO Important
The opening sentence in your novel has to do some heavy-lifting, so HOW you write yours is very important. Readers frequently read the first sentence to decide whether they will buy the book.
They may do this in real life by literally picking it up from a shelf and going to page 1. Alternatively, they may utilise the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon, or download the sample to their Kindles.
WHY A Great Opening Sentence is Important
A great opening sentence in a novel is important for several reasons …
i) It sets the tone for the rest of the book. ‘Starting as you mean to go on’ is very important in novel writing. It won’t do to start a romantic comedy with a murder, for example. Whilst that may seem obvious – and it is – it’s surprising how few writers ‘match’ their genre and tone with their content!
ii) It can also set up the conflict and introduce the reader to the characters. Lots of writers think ‘conflict’ = lots of arguments or fighting. Yet as screenwriters always say, ‘drama is conflict’ which means the SITUATION characters find themselves in. In other words, you just need a strong situation that creates lots of problems for your protagonist. This in turn means we learn about your character from how they respond to those problems.
iii) Lastly, a great opening can hook the reader and make them want to keep reading. If a potential reader is interested in your book, there’s a strong chance they will check out your first page. Few of us buy books without downloading the sample from Kindle, or opening the book in the store. We all make snap judgements!
Think of your novel’s opening as your ‘audition’ for a new reader and you can’t go wrong.
The Different Types of Openings
A great opening in a novel is one of those ‘you’ll know it when you see it’ type of things. It could be a powerful prologue that sets the stage for the story to come, or it could be a slow-burn first chapter that gradually builds up to something more exciting. Whatever form it takes, a great opening is always important in hooking readers and keeping them invested in the story.
Tip # 1: Start With Action
One of the most common ways to open a novel is with some kind of action scene. I write crime fiction and thrillers, so I often start with the crime itself … Or I may begin with a person’s response to it (running away, fighting back, racing to cover it up, etc). However, you can do whatever you like as long as it’s exciting or causes intrigue. Here’s some of mine …
- The Good Mother: opens with a little boy stabbing his father to death (Opening sentence: ‘What have you done … what have you done???’)
- The Coven: opens with a young girl exploding with magic & killing her mother (Opening sentence: ‘Green light was leaking under the bedroom door.’)
- Kill For It: opens with a woman tending to her wounds and vowing revenge (Opening sentence: ‘Nothing ever went her way.’)
- Never Have I Ever: opens with a woman who has just moved and is in her new home, but feels very unsettled (Opening sentence: ‘In my dreams, I always hear crying.’)
- Toxic: opens with a young girl receiving an ultimatum on her mobile (Opening sentence: ‘I opened the SnapChat message and immediately wished I hadn’t’).
Crime and thriller are plot-led, which means I frequently start with life-or-death stuff as catalyst. However, ANY novel can start with action, even literary fiction that deals primarily with thoughts and feelings.
Just like in screenwriting, everything we write in a novel has to do one of three things:
- Reveal character
- Push the story forward
Perhaps in your horror novel your protagonist is being haunted by ghosts or chased by werewolves? Or in your romantic comedy, perhaps your character is racing after their ex-partner to stop them leaving?
Action openings are usually fast-paced and exciting, or pose a question of some kind. They can give readers a good sense of what the rest of the novel will be like. They can also be introduced readers to the characters and setting of the story right away.
Tip # 2: Focus On Worldbuilding
Another popular way to start a novel is with a focus on worldbuilding. This could involve introducing readers to the rich history and lore of the storyworld. Alternatively, it could simply be establishing the everyday lives of the characters before things start to get interesting.
One word of caution: it can be very easy to ‘info dump’ when worldbuilding if you are not careful! Make sure you don’t make your reader ‘wait’ for the story to start … Introduce the setting, situation and characters hand in hand.
Tip # 3: Start with Characters
Some novels choose to open with character introductions instead, either through dialogue or inner monologue. This often benefits from a quirky beginning that really marks the character out.
One of my favourites is probably I Capture The Castle by Jodie Smith. Protagonist and narrator Cassandra starts with the memorable line, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’!
More Examples of Great Novel Openings
More memorable first lines that focus on the characters …
- “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
- “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Tips on Writing a Great Opening For Your Novel
It’s no secret that the first few pages of a novel are important. They are what hook the reader and make them want to keep reading. But how do you write a great opening? Here are a few tips:
1. Start with action. You want to grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence. One way to do this is to start in the middle of the action, rather than at the beginning.
2. Introduce your characters quickly. Don’t spend pages and pages describing them; just give enough information so that readers can start forming attachments.
3. Set the scene. Give readers a sense of place and time so they can immerse themselves in the story.
4. Use strong language. Your words should be evocative and paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
5. Hook the reader with a question or mystery. Make them want to know more so they’ll keep reading to find out what happens next.
A great opening in a novel is incredibly important and should be taken seriously. It sets the tone for the entire story, and it can make or break a reader’s interest from the start.
An effective opening will have characters that readers can relate to, an engaging plotline, vivid description of setting, and clever dialogue. Put simply – craft your opening thoughtfully and carefully for maximum impact.