Great opening lines

Consider the following . . .

“All this happened, more or less.”  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”  The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“‘What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.”  Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion

“The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”  The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”  To the Hilt, Dick Francis

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Did these first lines draw you in, make you want to go find the books and read them? Look what a single sentence can do!

No one will deny that a novel’s beginning is key to its success. Some might argue that its ending is even more important, but we’re not here to have that debate. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to start a novel, specifically, how to craft a stellar opening line and great opening paragraphs.

The writer’s goal for page one

Before we can discuss the specifics of how to start a novel, we need to talk about a writer’s goals for a story’s opening paragraph. Your primary goal is to make the reader keep reading. Sounds simple. But we know from our own experiences as readers, that it’s not so simple. How many times have you pulled a book off a library shelf, perhaps intrigued by the cover, read the first line or three, and reshelved it? Hundreds of times, right? Do you read two or three pages, or an entire chapter while standing in the bookstore? I don’t. If a writer hasn’t snared me by the end of the first paragraph, I don’t pull out my Visa.

What keeps a reader reading?

Books and articles on how to start a novel sometimes list dozens of things that will keep a reader reading. In my experience, they boil down to only two reasons: a compelling character (not necessarily “likable”) and/or getting swept into the action. Both of these hinge on evoking curiosity, making the reader want to know more about the character or find out how the action turns out, and setting up conflict. (There is a special, third way to start your novel, that I’ll discuss at the end.)

How to start a novel with a compelling character

No one technique will snare all readers, but we can make some generalizations. For the purposes of this section, let’s consider the opening paragraph, only three sentences, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

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.*

Raise questions. If your opening line or opening paragraphs raises questions in the reader’s mind, she is more likely to read on to discover the answer. The immediate question Gaiman’s first line brings to mind is “What did Shadow do to end up in prison?” We keep reading, hoping to find out.

Introduce a multi-layered, interesting character. Shadow’s a big, apparently tough dude in prison, but he’s teaching himself coin tricks, of all things, and he loves his wife. These front-and-center contradictions pique a reader’s interest (and all promise conflict). As a bonus, he’s sympathetic. We tend to be drawn to smart, curious people (teaching himself coin tricks), and people who love their family members, so we’re pre-disposed to like Shadow, even though the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in prison.

How to start a novel with action

In his book The Watchman, Robert Crais opens with the kind of action that keeps a reader reading. (Note: This great opening paragraph is only two sentences.)

The city was hers for a single hour, just the one magic hour, only hers. The morning of the accident, between three and four A.M. when the streets were empty and the angels watched, she flew east on Wilshire Boulevard at eighty miles per hour, never once slowing for the red lights along that stretch called the Miracle Mile, red after red, blowing through lights without even slowing; glittering blue streaks of mascara on her cheeks.*

Engage the reader in the action. Confess—you don’t want to keep reading this to find out who the woman is as much as to see if she crashes and what happens then. Will she die? Will she kill someone? Crais has roused our curiosity and promised conflict with “the accident” and what we think is an impending crash. We keep reading.

Introduce a character. Any character. Even when opening with an action sequence, you still need a character. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a screenwriter pitching a producer on his script. The screenwriter describes in great detail an opening sequence featuring a Mercedes speeding down the road, skidding off a cliff, and bursting into flames when it hits bottom. The producer asks: “Yes, but who’s in the car?”

Part of the reason we keep reading The Watchman is because there’s a woman, and she’s got fanciful ideas about the city, and maybe she’s crying (the mascara on her cheeks). She is by no means compelling (certainly not like Shadow in the earlier example), but she’s there and she’s got the hubris to think of Los Angeles as “hers.” It’s enough, in concert with the action, to make us read on.

How to start a novel with the power of language

I know I said that readers keep reading only if you arouse their curiosity by introducing a compelling character or involving them in action, both of which promise conflict. There is, actually, a third method, less often used because it requires a master’s hand, that I call “the power of language,” that does neither of those things. It can be a descriptive passage, a ruminative nugget of interior dialog, or some other bit of narrative that bowls the reader over with the beauty of the language and the narratorial voice. Consider this opening from Alice Hoffman’s The River King.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

There’s no character here, no action. It’s a description of a past storm and its effects. Put like that, it’s not very compelling, is it? The only whiff of present-day conflict lies in “had proven disastrous from the start,” which seems to foreshadow more disaster in the story ahead. But Hoffman’s description, her use of conflict-laden words like “precarious,” “disastrous,” and “torrents,” and that one beautiful image of a shining cloud of scales, reel us in. We want to lose ourselves in this language, in the world Hoffman is creating, and so we keep reading.

You cannot spend too much time getting your first line and opening paragraph right, making them great. Here’s your checklist for how to start a novel:

  • Does it raise one or more questions?
  • Does it promise conflict?
  • Does it introduce a compelling character?
  • Does it sweep the reader into the action?
  • Does it exhibit the power of language?

If you have included one or more of those elements, you’ve probably got a great opening paragraph.

What’s your favorite opening line of all time? Tell us on our Facebook page. Also, please let us know if you’d like to see more analysis of what makes a great opening paragraph by each of the CareerAuthors contributors. We’d really like to know.