June 20, 2023
By Maggie Smith
Writing a compelling opening for your novel isn’t optional, it’s essential. That initial half-page of Chapter One is the first impression agents, publishers, and most important, readers get of your writing style and skill and often determines whether they’ll purchase your book or not.
The good news is most people will give you a few paragraphs to convince them (not just your opening sentence, which tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention, in my opinion). The bad news is you’ve still got a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time. By the end of that first half-page you ideally should have:
- Plunged us into the action. You’ll hear this described as “in media res” or in the thick of things. Don’t waste your precious first-page real estate doing set-up or filling in backstory. Start the ride and invite the reader along. Steven James does this effectively in the first sentence of Checkmate from his Patrick Bowers series: “He stood in front of the mirror, unsure he really wanted to remove the bandages.”
- Communicated a theme. Why did you write this book? Whether it’s to examine a particular historical event, take the reader on an adventure where the hero learns a lesson, or show a character working through a trauma, you should have a strong point of view. You’re not just telling an interesting story but using your story to communicate something deeper. When Kristin Hannah begins The Nightingale with the words “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be, in war we find out who we are”, we sense that this story will put its characters through the crucible of not only wartime, but also examine universal themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and self-knowledge.
- Raised a question which needs answering. Nothing hooks a reader more than wondering what’s going to happen and an astute writer can play into this desire to know answers by posing mysteries in the first few paragraphs. For example, Allen Eskens ends the first paragraph of his debut The Lies We Bury this way: “If I had known how that drive would change so many things, would I have taken a safer path? Would I turn left where before I’d turned right? Or would I still travel the path that led me to Carl Iverson?” Isn’t your curiosity piqued? Don’t you want to read further to find out what happened, who Carl Iverson is, and how he affected this character’s life?
- Hooked the reader’s emotions. If you can reach out on your opening pages and make the reader feel something, you’ve won a fan. This isn’t always easy to do, since they haven’t gotten to know your characters yet, but sometimes you can play into common human emotions like regret, guilt, and shame, feelings that all of us have experienced at one time or another. Megan Miranda does this in The Last House Guest when her POV character, who we don’t yet know, tells us: “I almost went back for her. When she didn’t show. When she didn’t answer her phone. When she didn’t reply to my text . . . These are excuses, I know.” You can feel her remorse for failing to save her friend, even though you aren’t yet clear about what has happened.
- Communicated the stakes. This often means including a bit of foreshadowing, so the reader is privy to facts the character in your opening scene doesn’t know, lending a poignancy and resonance to the story you are about to tell them. In effect, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is one long flashback—we learn in the opening paragraph how the story ends—that Isabelle, “the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” The rest of the novel is a slow unspooling that brings us up to that defining moment. It’s all building toward a climax we already know is coming.
- Established tone/voice. Strive to communicate the mood, the feel of your writing in the first half-page. This often marks the difference between literary and commercial fiction because it lends itself to a slower-paced introduction into the story. For me, when I first read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I was captivated by the flowing language in the last paragraph of the opening page. “Mom reads us that old fairy tale in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, and this is the image it conjured for me, this scene from this movie, where my mother puts her hands into my mouth and pulls out a diamond.” In that moment, I was hooked, knowing I was in an expert’s hands who would offer me a unique reading experience.
- Introduced your main character, (including if possible their name). This is trickier than it seems, particularly if you are writing in first person. And by introduce I don’t mean hair color, eye color, and body shape, but their inner life, the way they view the world, the way they think about their life and other people. Consider these intriguing sentences from the first hundred words of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander: “We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. ‘Oleander time,’ she said. ‘Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.’ She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the desert dryness lick through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was still here, that the wind would stop blowing.”
Here’s your challenge: Look over these seven components of a successful opening, then go back to your WIP and see how many you’ve achieved in your first 250 words. Make it a goal to include at least four and you’ll be well on your way to effectively hooking a potential reader into turning the page.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, was published by Ten16Press in March 2022. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, The Devil You Know, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s also a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writers Association, she serves as managing editor of the literary publication Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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