For Starters

As Julie Andrews once sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.”I’m elbow deep in the rewrites for my novel, and the first chapter is making me think about beginnings. I see advice time and again that the opening sentence of a novel needs to hook the reader. The beginning should incite curiosity, instill excitement, or otherwise capture the reader’s imagination.

Great. Makes sense. Let’s see what my opening looks like:

Tobias rolled onto his stomach. Turning his face away from the morning sun streaming through his window, he closed his eyes against the light and tried to recall the dream he’d been having.
Something about a city with walls and hundreds of people milling about. Had there been a castle in the center? And there was that last bit where it seemed to be turning into a nightmare where fires burned in place of some of the houses…
He sat up. He’d lost the rest of it, so he shrugged off the memory as he dressed and let it fade away to the place where the rest of his dreams were forgotten. There was work to do and precious little time to do it all. Summer would be fast approaching and all had to be ready on his family’s farm for the season.

Good grief. And I even rewrote it before the first draft was done. (Do not, I repeat, do not make that rookie mistake. It causes a pileup of issues later on. Leave changes to the rewrites. Just make a note and move on during the first draft.) I know I put more than the first sentence, and I’m sure you can see why. Now let’s explore why, in my head, this fails to hook the reader (no matter what my mom says to the contrary ). Some questions come to mind, like: Who’s Tobias? Why should I care about his dream? Answers aren’t given until the second paragraph, and they’re only answers to the first question, following an info dump about his surroundings and lifestyle. Hardly riveting reading. The second question is part of a mystery that unfolds throughout the rest of the book, only it’s lack luster in presentation here. Although the dream sequence is an important detail, and part of a plot point that drives the narrative, I succeeded in making it impersonal here. While it scares Tobias through visions of violence, it is in no way connected to his present circumstances. Why should the reader care if the character doesn’t give it a second thought?

I’m going to leave my self-assessment where it is for now and offer some examples of excellent opening scenes. By examining what works in books I enjoy, I can come closer to achieving the same effect in my own opening sequence.

I researched some iconic openings for this post, to make sure I got a broad perspective and to refresh my memory for books I borrowed or no longer own. However, one classic came to mind, and actually propelled this idea forward when I first started considering opening lines.

In a hole in the ground there live a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
from The Hobbit, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party, by J.R.R. Tolkien

On top of all the other exciting things going on in these two simple lines, I love the extra little bit of information tucked into the chapter heading (but I’ll leave incidental details like that for a future post). The simplicity of these sentences is deceptive. They’re conversational in tone, yet Tolkien packs in a lot of information. And he prompts a few questions that serve to hook, rather than confuse, the reader. We don’t even get the hobbit’s name until much further down the page, but by then we have a clear picture of what he’s like, which will help us understand why he’s so perturbed by his strange guests later in the chapter. Then, it helps us see the extraordinary change he undergoes throughout his long adventure, prompting him to actions he never would’ve considered possible before the story begins. The first sentence is one step in building the narrative—the first step.

The first sentence makes the reader take notice: What is a hobbit? The second tells us a hobbit is a clean, sensible creature who enjoys the steady predictability of the day to day—for what greater comfort is there for someone who lives in a hole in the ground? Knowing that the story is only begun means we can expect this hobbit will be pulled out of his comfort zone and into excitement in short order, even if Bilbo doesn’t.

Another aspect of this beginning is the speed with which it drops the reader into the story. Tolkien gives us a hole and tells us it’s a home. Then he shows what it’s like by telling us what it’s not like. He goes on in the next paragraphs to fill in the space and give it shape until it’s possible for the reader to develop a clear picture of the home, and the surrounding hill, in the mind’s eye. This also serves to tell us what kind of person lives in such a home. I think it’s beautifully done and operates well within the bounds of the story. I’d consider this a ‘slow build’ opening. Still, this is certainly not the only way to begin a story.

There’s always the initial mystery and disorientation of starting a book, as a reader, before the ‘who,’ ‘where,’ and ‘what’s happening’ are revealed. Sometimes an opening sentence or two are designed to be jarring because the rest of the narrative is meant to leave the ready uneasy.

He’s a prime example of an opening setting the mood rather than setting a scene:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.
from Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Already there are obvious differences between this passage and the last. Vonnegut wrote his story in first person (for the first chapter, at least), bringing an intimacy to the storytelling. The reader is dropped directly into the narrator’s head, scattered thoughts and all. To top it all off, the narrator claims credibility in a way that actually creates doubt. This serves to prepare the reader for a strange trip. The narrator remains the same (more or less) throughout the rest of the book, but that’s the only consistency. And that’s the point, really. Even the first few lines demonstrate that nothing in the world is guaranteed, (except, maybe, the horrors of war), not the reliability of the narrator, or our fates.

Instead of Tolkien’s approach of easing the reader into the world of the story, Vonnegut unsettles the reader, making him or her question the world as they’re led through it. Each method of opening serves it’s story in a specific way.

A third way to start a story, and one that introduces and intriguing mystery from the first words, is the ‘preview and rewind.’ The story starts with a moment drawn from later in the narrative, a tantalizing glimpse of the conflict to come. The author then moves back in time to take the reader through the events leading up to that point. The cause of the conflict is examined in detail.

Two examples of this come to mind. Each utilizes this method in a distinct way.

On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below.
from The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

Here, the setting and one of the main characters are introduced immediately, however the circumstances are unusual. A miracle is forecast, but not revealed. Isabel is on a remote island. Why else would a cross—a grave marker—be made of driftwood? Why else would the burial be on the edge of the cliff? Further along in the passage, more information is given about the isolated island and its inhabitants. The event, the supposed miracle, is also described, only at that point it seems more like a mystery, or tragedy. The next chapter begins with a scene eight years earlier and thousands of miles away. The narrative unfolds chronologically from there, outlining how the characters got to the event touched on in the first pages. The miraculous nature of that event is clarified—as well as its tragic nature—and the reader is rewarded for paying attention to the details, revealed like clues up front.

In a different iteration of what I’ll call the ‘preview/rewind’ style, the mystery isn’t so much ‘what happened’ as ‘why it happened at all.’ And this time, the narrator is first person the whole way through the story.

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—
from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

The reader is presented with a body right away, along with a narrator who appears to know what happened. Not much detail is given as to how everyone got there, only that it was a life-haunting event for the as-yet-unknown narrator. There’s the strange sense that he doesn’t feel guilt over the death. Maybe he only feels regret that things turned out the way they did. The thing with first person narrators is that the reader never truly knows what the character is thinking unless he or she tells you. And they don’t have to because that’s how a first person account of things works. It adds to the suspense in this example.

After this brief snapshot of things to come, the story starts back about a year or so prior (although the narrator is only recalling these events from a distance of years in the future). He recounts everything that leads to his involvement in the body found at the bottom of the ravine.

In both cases of ‘preview/rewind,’ the mystery of the story isn’t the event that is the climax of the story. That’s given away up front. Instead, the journey—how the characters got to that point, and what happens after—is the big draw. The small peek at a future portion of the story, a crucial moment, is the hook that draws the reader in. It’s the promise of drama. It’s the possibility of tracing a path through an unlikely sequence of events until the satisfaction of the reveal is reached.

These beginnings can be tricky to pull off, but they’re wonderfully effective when done right. I’ve seen writing advice cautioning against the use of two devices employed by both authors right in their openings: prologues and time jumps. I’d like to explore a little about why each is problematic and how these authors overcame the obstacles to create effective openings using both literary devices.

The case against prologues makes sense, for the most part. It could be tempting to use the prologue as a way to fit in exposition. When handled clumsily it could turn into an info dump rather than a foretaste of the beating heart of the story.

The time jump is a bit more complicated. Most of the arguments caution against flashbacks specifically. Again, the danger is in using them for expositional info dumping. At the start of a novel though, we see a flash forward, but any time jump can become a crutch if used incorrectly. If too much of the future event is revealed, why read the rest of the book? If the event is shrouded in too much mystery it may confuse the reader, especially if on reaching the referenced event as it appears later on, the reader doesn’t recognize it. The time jump also loses power if it’s overused.

In the two examples above, the technique is the reserve of one special place in the narrative, and that place is indicated by also being the prologue, while the rest proceeds chronologically.

So we have four opening scenes and four(ish) methods for making them work. Let’s go back to my personal example and see if my rewrites look better than the first draft. Spoiler alert: most of them don’t.

Tobias crouched in a corner of the barn, next to the stable at the back corner, and watched dust motes fall in the slanting light. He could hear his brother and father talking outside. They couldn’t find him and that suited him just fine.

That one might be worse as far as hooking the reader. It barely gives a feel for Tobias’s personality and only asks ‘Why is he hiding in the barn?’

Moving on…

The kingdom of Dunthyre occupied a portion of the western coast of a larger landmass spreading east and covered by a great inland desert. Klast to the north and Senne to the south provided political borders while…

Blah, blah, blah. I pulled back too far for this beginning. Borders can be explained later. That’s why fantasy novels come with maps, amiright? A little further down, I wrote ‘Tobias neither knew nor cared about any of those things,’ and neither will the reader.

Egads! It’s getting worse, and we’re not done yet.

No magic existed in Dunthyre for the last age. The kingdom occupied a portion of the western coast of a continent that spread east. A great desert dominated the inland…

More of the same. But the addition of that first sentence means I’m getting somewhere. It reveals something about one of the issues at the heart of the novel.

And so we reach the part I labeled ‘And Now: One More Time, With Feeling!’

Magic, the wild kind that comes at great cost to the user, existed in legend only. Tobias knew the legends, he devoured the stories since he could ask to hear them repeated. He believed the magic of the legends resided in the fictional ancient past of myth. It served as an element of entertainment, nothing more. Given his convictions, Tobias refused to believe his own eyes.

This is where all those false starts finally came together. I’m much happier with this version. It could stand some polishing, but it doesn’t need a total overhaul anymore. Now that these are all together, I can examine the issues I had to work through to come to the last try.

The first example, from way at the top of this post, is excusable since I had only a vague idea of the focus and theme of the whole thing. (We’ll explore theme in a later post.) Once I finished the entire first draft of the novel, I had a much better idea of where I wanted the story to go, and so I had a better idea of how and where to start.

Being a fantasy novel, I took a cue from The Hobbit for my opening sequence. I use the first sentence to make a blanket statement about the state of magic in the world of the novel. The rest of the paragraph explores the protagonist’s relationship to, and attitudes about, magic in his world. It also introduces the protagonist, Tobias, to the reader.

There are almost as many ways of opening a novel as there are novels, and not every way will resonate with the reader. But the writer can take some things into consideration to help craft the best opening for their particular novel.

Here’s my unofficial questionnaire I used as I reviewed my rough draft and prepared to revise the opening:

  1. Now that I know where the story ends, what is the logical beginning point?
  2. How should I introduce my main character/s, i.e. gradually, or all at once? Point of view (first or third person narrator) can help determine this.
  3. Is there a driving plot point or character motivation that kicks off the story? If so, should it be addressed immediately?
  4. Dramatic tension or full throttle action? Pick a flavor.

Hopefully this has given you some encouragement and direction as you get to your own revisions and first line rewrites. I actually enjoyed mapping the evolution of my first lines. And I thought it would be embarrassing.

Good luck and get writing!



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