The Novel Opening: A Resource Guide

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Deciding how to open your novel can be the most difficult part of the whole shebang. Those first few lines have to hook the reader and draw them into the story – a big job for a few short words. To help you (and me), I’ve pulled together as many tips, tricks, links, and resources as we can handle to help you craft an effective opening line to your novel.

Do what the pros do

Want to read some expert opening lines? Try these:

Know what to avoid

Don’t confuse your readers. You want to intrigue them and spur them to ask questions, but one of those questions should not be “what’s even happening here?”

Don’t start with an information dump. Exposition is an extremely dry way to start your novel and will turn readers away.

Don’t expect your reader to cry in the first paragraph. They can’t care about your characters just yet, so starting with an overly dramatic or tragic moment will fall flat.

Don’t write a prologue. Apparently, literary agents think they’re lazy and boring. Instead, jump right into the movement of the story. (And make sure to check out this link for more advice from literary agents).

Don’t start with a dream scene. They’re called false beginnings, and they set a deceptive tone before a potentially big shift to what is actually happening in the book.

Try these ideas

Be vivid and specific. Give the reader an opening into a new world. Ensure that the first sentence and/or paragraph begins to clearly orient them into this world.

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” – Stephen King

Create a sensory experience. You want the reader to see, feel, smell, hear, or taste the scene.

Surprise your readers. Juxtapose two things together that aren’t typically paired. Insert a single element that doesn’t belong.

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Observe a universal truth that will ring throughout your novel. Be careful not to get cheesy or clichéd here.

Get right to the “who” and the “what.” Leave the “why” and the “wherefore” for later.

Try a couple exercises

Wait until the story is done before you decide on how it should open. What would give your readers a tantalizing glimpse of the upcoming action?

Once you have a full draft, look a couple pages past the beginning for your opening line. Often, you have inserted a bunch of description that can be sprinkled throughout the book instead.

Get feedback from readers and fellow writers. Give them your first line and ask them if they would keep reading. What do they see when they read this line?

Switch up who opens the novel. If you have a single narrator you can’t do this, but with multiple narrators, consider whose voice might open the novel in the most compelling way.

Pattern your first line off of famous first lines. Shamelessly insert your own characters into these lines as an exercise and see what sparks. Remember: don’t plagiarize. An imitation first line is not the end goal, but a stop along the way that might show you where your first line should sit.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers hoping to entrance readers with their opening lines? Let me know in the comments!

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