The Dos and Don’ts of Beginning a Novel: An Illustrated Guide
I’ve had a lot of asks lately for how to begin a book (or how not to), so here’s a post on my general rules of thumb for story openers and first chapters!
Please note, these are incredibly broad generalizations; if you think an opener is right for you, and your beta readers like it, there’s a good chance it’s A-OK. When it comes to writing, one size does not fit all. (Also note that this is for serious writers who are interested in improving their craft and/or professional publication, so kindly refrain from the obligatory handful of comments saying “umm, screw this, write however you want!!”)
So without further ado, let’s jump into it!
1. Open with a dream.
“Just when Mary Sue was sure she’d disappear down the gullet of the monstrous, winged pig, she woke up bathed in sweat in her own bedroom.”
What? So that entire winged pig confrontation took place in a dream and amounts to nothing? I feel so cheated!
Okay, not too many people open their novels with monstrous swine, but you get the idea: false openings of any kind tend to make the reader feel as though you’ve wasted their time, and don’t usually jump into more meaty action of the story quickly enough. It makes your opening feel lethargic and can leave your audience yawning.
2. Open with a character waking up.
This feels familiar to most of us, but unless your character is waking up to a zombie attack or an alien invasion, it’s generally a pretty easy recipe to get your story to drag.
No one picks a book to hear how your character brushes their teeth in the morning or what they’d like to have for dinner. As a general rule of thumb, we read to explore things we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. And cussing out the alarm clock is not one of them.
Granted, there are exceptions if your writing is exceptionally engaging, but in most cases it just sets a slow pace that will bore you and your reader to death and probably cause you to lose interest in your book within the first ten pages.
3. Bombard with exposition.
Literary characters aren’t DeviantArt OCs. And the best way to convey a character is not, in my experience, to devote the first ten pages to describing their physical appearance, personality, and backstory. Develop your characters, and make sure their fully fleshed out – my tips on how to do so here – but you don’t need to dump all that on the reader before they have any reason to care about them. Let the reader get to know the character gradually, learn about them, and fall in love with them as they would a person: a little bit at a time.
This is iffy when world building is involved, but even then it works best when the delivery feels organic and in tune with the book’s overall tone. Think the opening of the Hobbit or Good Omens.
4. Take yourself too seriously.
Your opener (and your novel in general) doesn’t need to be intellectually pretentious, nor is intellectual pretense the hallmark of good literature. Good literature is, generally speaking, engaging, well-written, and enjoyable. That’s it.
So don’t concern yourself with creating a poetic masterpiece of an opening line/first chapter. Just make one that’s – you guessed it – engaging, well-written, and enjoyable.
5. Be unintentionally hilarious.
Utilizing humor in your opening line is awesome, but check yourself to make sure your readers aren’t laughing for all the wrong reasons (this is another reason why betas are important.)
These examples of the worst opening lines in published literature will show you what I mean – and possibly serve as a pleasant confidence booster as well:
“As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”
– Ali Kawashima
“She sipped her latte gracefully, unaware of the milk foam droplets building on her mustache, which was not the peachy-fine baby fuzz that Nordic girls might have, but a really dense, dark, hirsute lip-lining row of fur common to southern Mediterranean ladies nearing menopause, and winked at the obviously charmed Spaniard at the next table.”
– Jeanne Villa
“As I gardened, gazing towards the autumnal sky, I longed to run my finger through the trail of mucus left by a single speckled slug – innocuously thrusting past my rhododendrons – and in feeling that warm slime, be swept back to planet Alderon, back into the tentacles of the alien who loved me.”
– Mary E. Patrick
“Before they met, his heart was a frozen block of ice, scarred by the skate blades of broken relationships, then she came along and like a beautiful Zamboni flooded his heart with warmth, scraped away the ugly slushy bits, and dumped them in the empty parking lot of his soul.”
– Howie McClennon
If these can get published, so can you.
1. You know that one really interesting scene you’re itching to write? Start with that.
Momentum is an important thing in storytelling. If you set a fast, infectious beat, you and your reader will be itching to dance along with it.
Similarly, slow, drowsy openers tend to lead to slow, drowsy stories that will put you both to sleep.
I see a lot of posts joking about “that awkward moment when you sit down to write but don’t know how to get to that one scene you actually wanted to write about.” Write that scene! If it’s at all possible, start off with it. If not, there are still ways you can build your story around the scenes you actually want to write.
Keep in mind: if you’re bored, your reader will almost certainly be bored as well. So write what you want to write. Write what makes you excited. Don’t hold off until later, when it “really gets good.” Odds are, the reader will not wait around that long, and you’re way more likely to become disillusioned with your story and quit. If a scene is dragging, cut it out. Burn bridges, find a way around. Live, dammit.
2. Engage the reader.
There are several ways to go about this. You can use wit and levity, you can present a question, and you can immerse the reader into the world you’ve created. Just remember to do so with subtlety, and don’t try too hard; believe me, it shows.
Here are some of my personal favorite examples of engaging opening lines:
“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
– Douglas Adams, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
"It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
– Iain Banks, Crow Road.
“A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of the a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a grand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed.”
– Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games.
See what I’m saying? They pull you in and do not let go.
3. Introduce us to a main character (but do it right.)
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
This is one of my favorite literary openings of all time, because right off the bat we know almost everything we need to know about Shadow’s character (i.e. that he’s rugged, pragmatic, and loving.)
Also note that it doesn’t tell us everything about Shadow: it presents questions that make us want to read more. How did Shadow get into prison? When will he get out? Will he reunite with his wife? There’s also more details about Shadow slowly sprinkled in throughout the book, about his past, personality, and physical appearance. This makes him feel more real and rounded as a character, and doesn’t pull the reader out of the story.
Obviously, I’m not saying you should rip off American Gods. You don’t even need to include a hooker eating a guy with her cooch if you don’t want to.
But this, and other successful openers, will give you just enough information about the main character to get the story started; rarely any good comes from infodumping, and allowing your reader to get to know your character gradually will make them feel more real.
The toughest part of being a writer is that it’s a rare and glorious occasion when you’re actually satisfied with something you write. And to add another layer of complication, what you like best probably won’t be what your readers will like best.
If you refuse to keep moving until you have the perfect first chapter, you will never write anything beyond your first chapter.
Set a plan, and stick to it: having a daily/weekly word or page goal can be extremely helpful, especially when you’re starting out. Plotting is a lifesaver (some of my favorite posts on how to do so here, here, and here.)
Keep writing, keep moving, and rewrite later. If you stay in one place for too long, you’ll never keep going.