When I discuss how to start a novel in this post, I’m not talking about serving up namby-pamby inspirational go-juice or a step-by-step tool-heavy walkthrough. I’m talking about a quite literal start: crafting your opening line.
The first sentence (or paragraph) is one of the most pivotal parts of your novel, the thing that begs the readers’ attention and draws them into your tapestry of words, binding them firmly to the rest of your story. With the average reading attention span coming in at a scanty 8 seconds, if your prose doesn’t give them cause for pause, they aren’t going to stick around to the end.
In playing around with the beginning of my next novel, a supernatural Viking saga, I did a bit of research on good openings. What I found was both illuminating and disappointing. Apparently, there’s quite a range of opinion on how to start a novel, and some of it doesn’t resonate with me. Let me start by using examples I found worthy:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
“They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise
“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 pleasure to burn.” —Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I could give you oodles more, but I won’t. Google them if you feel compelled. Instead, I’ll supply some touted as fantastic examples of how to start a novel, but which I find lacking. Here goes:
“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.” —My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
“The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium.” —Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Do you see the difference between the two sets of lines? In the first set, you have a question, a hunch, a “things that make you go hmmmm” moment. While plenty of writing coaches see setting context and introducing a narrator’s voice as strong openings, I think those literary tools aren’t as engaging. They’re not stinkers for opening lines, but for me, at least, they don’t herald a foray further into the story.
Okay, so what? Where does a budding novelist go from here? I like to stick to the methods that take the reader by surprise or wallop them upside the head. You’ve only got 8 seconds–your story has to strike fast and sink its teeth into their gray matter before they can get away. Try these ideas:
Make ‘Em Want More: Tantalize with incomplete knowledge. The first line from Middlesex does this well. You read the passage and “What the . . .?” pops right into your head. You can’t figure out how it can be possible to be born twice, and as both a boy and a girl, but you sure need to find out. Only reading further will cure the insatiable itch to find out how it’s done.
Make A Bold Statement: Toni Morrison takes a bold bludgeon to your sensibilities with the opening line of Paradise: “They shoot the white girl first.” It’s a grand combination of incomplete information (who is shooting whom and why?) and a bold statement. A white girl: The addition of a racial element makes the statement even more impactful and in-your-face.
Use Juxtaposition for Effect: Ray Bradbury does this with his opening line from Fahrenheit 451. It’s not until you read further that you realize the narrator isn’t talking about feeling sexually frustrated (or fulfilled), but about the burning of banned books by a totalitarian state. It gives the reader a peek into the mind of evil by contrasting “pleasure” and “burn” for maximum effect.
All of the above contain an element of the first device: incomplete knowledge, which I consider the best tool for opening lines. If you need to start a novel with a bang, including this literary device in the opening line does the trick. You can use it along with context or narration emphasis if you wish, but even alone you’ll have a reader magnet that will short circuit that 8 second attention span and pull them in.
See you on the next page!