What Every Successful Novel Opening Must Do: Myth vs. Reality

The day is short, the slush is deep, and if your manuscript doesn't have what it takes to hook a reader from the very first page, agents and editors will waste no time in kicking it to the curb. 

It's a bit of a brutal business, but necessary; to succeed in securing a readership, a novel's opening must prove more seductive than the latest email pinging your reader's phone, the latest update from some far-flung friend, or the siren song of Netflix.

There is no lack of books on the subject of openings, and in my experience as an editor, many of them offer solid advice. But a lot of that advice is contradictory—and some of it is just plain wrong.

Myth #1: You have to start with your triggering event

Reality: Sometimes the triggering event is too soon—or too late

Where to start your story is a difficult question, so many authors answer it in the simplest possible way, which is to start with the triggering event—that event that upends the protagonist's ground situation and sets the events of the plot into motion.

Wanting to know more is a big part of what has made Homo sapiens so successful as a species...

It's great advice if it works for you, but don't be surprised if it doesn't, especially if your novel requires a lot of set up—eg, if one of the narrators is dead or the book is set on another planet. For example, consider the opening of Markus Zusak’s 2005 bestseller The Book Thief:

First, the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
Here is a small fact: You are going to die.

What follows is a highly digressive aside from a sort of grim reaper character who’s obsessed with colors; the book’s short first chapter is no more than an introduction of this person, their POV and voice. It’s not until the end of it that we receive even a hint of what this story may actually be about, much less a triggering event. But we need this time to get grounded in the world of the story, and that's what I mean about how sometimes, the triggering event is too late in the storyline for you to start with it.

Conversely, the triggering event may be too soon in the storyline to start with if you're writing a fast-paced thriller. In that case, rather than starting with the murder or crime—the triggering event—you may want to start with a car chase already in progress and then fill us in on the details of the triggering event after the fact.

In either case, what the story needs should dictate how it starts—not the least common denominator, in terms of advice.

Myth #2: You must start in scene

Reality: Sometimes summary can be just as strong as scene, if not stronger

There's no doubt that opening in scene is a powerful way to draw the reader in. But anyone who tells you that opening with summary cannot be just as a strong has never truly appreciated the power of the storyteller's voice. Consider, for example, the opening of Phillip Pullman's The Tiger in the Well:

One sunny morning in the autumn of 1881, Sally Lockhart stood in the garden and watched her little daughter play, and thought that things were good.

She was wong, but she wouldn't know how or why she was wrong for twenty minutes yet. The man who would show her was still finding his way to the house. For the moment she was happy, which was delightful, and she knew she was, which was rare; she was usually too busy to notice. 

She was happy, for one thing, about her home. It was a large place in Twickenham called Orchard House...

Sure, it's a self-consciously (and appropriately) Victorian opening, with that omniscient narrator's voice so distinctly separate from that of the protagonist. And sure, being the author of The Golden Compass and a laundry list of other great books imparts credibility to virtually anything Pullman might try. But it's also a novel opening that works, in terms of drawing the reader in, and it's nearly all summary—for the first three pages.

Myth #3: You have to know your "story problem" and "protagonist's problem" before you start

Reality: Pantsers write great openings too

In Les Edgerton's book Hooked: Write Fiction That Hooks Readers on Page One and Never Lets Them Go, the author claims that to write a really bang-up opening, you have to know both your story problem (the problem that your plot will solve) and your protagonist's problem (the deep inner issue the plot will force her to face) before you begin writing.

There are many authors who've written on the subject of openings. You'll find some of their advice useful, but some of it will make you feel like an idiot, and not because you are an idiot but because it comes from a writer whose brain is very different from yours.

This is among the more maddening pieces of well-meaning writing advice I have encountered. First, because of its wording—as far as I'm concerned, plot arc and character arc are much stronger terms than either of these so-called problems, and not only because they're easier to understand. Second, because there's some good, deep thinking about story behind this advice, but it makes writing sound like friggin' calculus.

Over the years, writers who outline their novels before they start writing have come to be known as planners, and those who don't as pantsers. George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, prefers "architects vs. gardeners," and he identifies as the latter—someone who digs a hole and plants the seed of a character in it, with no more than a broad outline in mind for where he thinks the story might go. Clearly, Martin does not know both his story problem and each character’s deep inner problem before he starts (though some readers might wish that he did)—and yet, he seems to have no problem in getting readers past the first page.

According to the author, A Game of Thrones actually began with an image, that of a dead wolf and her living pups found by a noble family that bears the animal as its crest, one pup for each of the children of the house of Winterfell. That's the image Martin's subconscious coughed up, the stuff of myths and legend; from it, we sense that the story will follow these children over the course of their lives and that the fate of Winterfell will be at stake. Martin would have been a fool to throw such an image back in favor of something that better solves X for Y.

Myth #4: You can't open with dialogue

Reality: If you can overcome the risks, you can open with dialogue

Opening with dialogue is fraught with risk. Your reader has no idea who these people are, why they're talking to each other, or what in the hell is going on here, which is why authors generally avoid such openings. But consider the opening lines of Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal:

My mother used to say, “Lilian, as long as I’m alive, you must have nothing to do with that woman.” She was referring to Suzie, my father’s mistress.

“Okay, I won’t,” I would reply.

In this case, the situation is easily derived from just these few lines of dialogue, which works to establish not only the trouble to come but what's at stake in the story. Of course Lilian will talk to Suzie—we know that from the title. But will it be before her mother dies or not? And which betrayal will prove greater—the infidelity of Lilian's father or Lilian's betrayal of her mother? 

And here's the opening of Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things:

“I was going to say something,” he said.

“So say it,” she said.

In this case, we may not know anything about the characters speaking, but we don't need to—it's sort of an archetypal man-woman relationship exchange, and the way the author presents it here, stripped of character names, works to underscore that as a deliberate stylistic effect. Who is the author of this odd, daring opening? And where is he going with this archetypal couple and their problem? It's risky, but again, in this case, for this book, it works.

Myth #5: There are many things you have to do to hook the reader on the very first page

Reality: There are only two things you have to do to hook your reader on the very first page

There are many authors who've written on the subject of openings. You'll find some of their advice useful, but some of it will make you feel like an idiot, and not because you are an idiot but because it comes from a writer whose brain is very different from yours.

Really, though, there are only two things the opening of your novel has to do. First, it must not bomb the basics. Second, it must engage your reader's curiosity.

By not bombing the basics, I mean grammar, spelling, and clarity at the level of the line. I mean letting us know whose story this is and where we are and what's happening—basically. And by engaging the reader's curiosity, I mean catching her attention in a way that causes her to start making predictions, even if it's on a completely subconscious basis.

This is something you'll see at work in every opening included in this post (and in every novel opening in your local bookstore). Zusak's opening from the POV of a nonhuman entity makes us want to know more about this character. Pullman's opening with the danger to Sally Lockhart gets us to read on through three solid pages of backstory because we know something terrible is going to happen in just twenty minutes' time. Those two novels that take such risks in opening with dialogue overcome those risks because—and this is the essential thing here—we want to know more

Wanting to know more is a big part of what has made Homo sapiens so successful as a species, as is the ability to predict what will happen in the future based on what happened in the past—so it's no wonder that when you engage the reader's curiosity, her brain gives her a nice shot of dopamine. As soon as she starts wondering (and predicting) what will happen next, that pleasurable chemical causes her to anticipate the satisfaction that will come from being proven right (or even wrong, provided that your answer is clever enough). Most importantly, she will read on.

And the good news here is that there are as many different ways to engage a reader's curiosity as there are authors. A unique voice might get your reader wondering, “Who is this? Who’s talking to me?” Humor, which is often built around unexpected conjunctions, may cause her to read on to see if she can anticipate the punch line of your next joke. Clues as to some trouble in the past might get her wondering what happened way back when; hints concerning trouble to come might have her wondering from which quarter that trouble will arrive.

However you choose to approach it, once you've engaged your reader's curiosity, you'll get her to turn those all-important first pages.

What happens next is up to you.

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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Kikazzi's picture
Kikazzi September 17, 2015 - 8:25am

Thanks for this! It's nice to hear the other side of things. Openings can be so stressful. I have trouble not questioning mine endlessly.

Sean Hillman's picture
Sean Hillman September 17, 2015 - 11:18am

Great advice. Even experienced writers could stand to read it.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami September 17, 2015 - 4:53pm

I can't seem to figure out the opening, because recently I had discovered that chapter 7 was meant to be chapter 1, and chapter 8 was meant to be chapter 2, or some out of order combination like that. (Ignore the current numbering on Wattpad, I've also included side stories on there.)

I think the issue was that certain lines repeat as part of a MCs job profession (sweep and waitress for a fast food joint), and so certain lines like 'may I take your order' repeat a couple of different times in the novella.

The reason I discovered this issue was that the MC was mysteriously missing in these chapters without explanation, and the timeline was a little bit wonky. What I'm considering is merging chapters by reducing the roles of some of them by reducing into burst back (the short story cousin of flashbacks) that are revealed during times of present MC triggering events.

I do this as there are multiple triggering events in the story, it being episodic.

Novellas are weird for me.:/

I'm so used to short fiction.

Oliver Shiny's picture
Oliver Shiny January 22, 2016 - 10:57am

Have you read The Martian? I like how that one begins too.