By Diane O’Connell
When you first crack open a new novel, there’s so much riding on that first sentence. I know it sounds a bit extreme, but hear me out — aren’t opening lines that immediately pull you into the novel’s story world so much more invigorating and intriguing than lackluster ones?
A powerful and utterly interesting opening line can not only draw readers into your novel, but also hint at the overarching themes your work explores in a deep and lasting way.
Here are 3 ways to open your novel:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
—Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
Did you just ask yourself, “What? Explode?” A surprising opening that causes readers to pause, perplexed in their tracks, is a dramatic way to thrust the novel’s story into existence.
Often, the best of these jolting lines have short, choppy syntax, or contain phrases that are downright confusing to readers (like the one above). Although your readers don’t quite understand what’s going on, they are intrigued. They want to know more and the only thing they can do is keep reading to find the answer — this is what you want as an author.
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s.”
—Tana French, In The Woods
Gorgeous, almost poetic prose can sweep readers into your novel’s setting, as this opening line does here. Note the nostalgic tone with which French festoons her first sentence. She romances us with these images of small towns and idyllic summers, enticing us to recall our own memories of such rosy times.
A vibrant opening like this also sets the tone for the rest of the novel. In The Woods takes place in the Irish countryside, during a summer that was ultimately transformative for its characters. With these snapshots of a time now gone, French almost mimics the sensory memories one associates with childhood — we don’t remember conversations or exactly what our routine was each day, but we remember what we felt with our senses. French’s first line calls to mind the dreamlike imagery of Proust’s scene from Remembrance of Things Past, when he harnesses a memory of a simple madeleine in a entrancing, sensory way. Not only does French’s opening line give an example of poetic prose, but it also orients readers to what kind of novel this will be.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
If your novel’s protagonist drives the arc of your entire story, or has a unique point-of-view, consider opening with his thoughts, narration or dialogue. Here, we hear the narrator’s deflated tone so clearly as he opens up to us. We are instantly curious as to what he’ll say next.
Perfecting an opening line like this takes a full commitment to write in the voice of your main character. You must know his thoughts, tone, background…if you want to introduce your readers to your main character (the star of the show) ASAP.
Would you love to craft an enchanting opening line, but aren’t sure how? Try this: Find opening lines you love and mimic the approach, sentence structure and tone, using your own story. Don’t be afraid to take risks with creative writing. Experiment, and don’t despair if you end up with a dozen opening lines you can’t select one from; the opening line is often the line most changed in a novel.
Do you feel your novel needs help with its opening line — or opening pages? That’s something I can help you with. Get in touch here.