How to Write Spotless Novel Openings
Writing a novel opening is very delicate. On the one hand, it’s your first introduction to the reader, which is important because first impressions matter, especially in literature. On the other hand, it’s very hard to nail down the perfect one as a writer. Writing your very first sentence can take ages, even if you have a vivid storyline imagined.
Luckily, you have a body of literature waiting to be discovered, along with ideas for perfect novel openings.
Using examples from novels by the South’s finest, here are some of the most effective ways to write epic, unforgettable and captivating novel openings that will allow your story to blossom.
If your novel is written in the first person, it’s great to start with a basic introduction that exudes honesty and directness. Imagine if you were the character introducing themselves to a crowd of people or an audience. What would you say? You can brainstorm using the following questions for your first-person character:
- Who am I?
- Why am I special?
- Why am I telling this story?
- Who is going to be interested in this character?
- How can I make my audience desire to know me better?
Here’s an excellent example from Mark Twain’s American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” – Mark Twain
In this introduction, Twain uses several narrative strategies: first-person introduction, meta-narration (mentioning the previous novel where Huck appears) and direct communication to the audience. The effect is that the reader can form an instant connection to the character and believe that they’re hearing the story straight from the protagonist.
Set the Scene
Visual imagery is very important in literature: If you manage to paint a clear picture of the setting of your story, your novel will be impossible to put down, because readers will be transformed to another world.
This is why many writers opt for scene descriptions in their novel openings. When a scene is well-illustrated at the beginning of the novel, the reader can start imagining the setting right away and deepen their imagination as they go on with the book.
Here’s an example from Faulkner’s epic Southern novel Absalom, Absalom:
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened” – William Faulkner
This introduction mentions both the place and the time of the scene in a symbolic and visual description. Faulkner is also using his signature stream of consciousness style right from the very beginning of his novel.
Start with A Powerful Quote
Many novels start with a quote from another work of literature or mythological work, and Southern literature is no exception. In the South, opening a novel with a quote from the Bible is fairly common.
What is the intended effect of this opening strategy? You, as a writer, should evaluate how your quote will connect to the storyline of your book. Many writers choose to present the underlying tone of the book in the opening quote.
This is also a common narrative strategy in postmodern literature, which relies on intertextuality and meta-references.
Many Southern novels open with a quote, such as:
Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
And her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Jean Toomer’s Cane:
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon, can’t you see it, can’t you see it, Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon … When the sun goes down.
John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces:
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. – Jonathan Swift
Go In Medias Res
In medias res (literally meaning “in the centre of things“) is a common storytelling technique that’s been around since ancient Greek literature. It implies that you do not slowly introduce your reader to a character, story or the setting, but throw them in the middle of what’s happening at a certain point.
It doesn’t have to be a crucial event for the book, but the point is to go directly to action and let the reader find out the details and finish the puzzle by continuing to read the novel.
Cormac McCarthy does a great job of this type of introduction in his Child of God:
THEY CAME LIKE A CARAVAN of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddle peg and listened with a wrinkled face.” – Cormac McCarthy
Without any detailed explanations, the reader is directly transferred to the event of which they know nothing about—yet. It also starts with “they,” without any context, so the reader has to continue interacting with the novel to finish the entire picture.
A great benefit of in medias res in novel openings is that you can instantly engage the reader and provide a dynamic and active atmosphere.
Write in Letterform
Epistolary novels, written in the form of letters, are not only engaging to readers, but can also be a great cure for writer’s block if you don’t know how to start your novel. Here’s an example of a letter novel opening from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple:
DEAR GOD, I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” – Alice Walker
The effect that this type of novel opening achieves is a direct empathy with the character and easy correlation. It also gives off a sense of honesty and truthfulness, because the character is writing to their diary or to another trusted person, and not to a wide audience. This is why letterform is a great choice for first-person novels.
“Heroic romanticism has always been deeply embedded in Southern literature. This genre is also the darling of epistolary novels. After its zenith in the 19th century, we’re now seeing a huge comeback of this narrative form both in Southern works and worldwide,” says Kimberly Abrams, a writer at Studicus.
There are literally infinite ways you can open your novel, which is precisely what makes it so hard. Many great ideas and stories have probably gone unwritten because their creators simply couldn’t get that first couple of sentences on paper.
Don’t be intimidated by the opening of your novel; you can always go back and edit it as your story progresses.
The best way to battle writer’s block and actually write down that first couple of sentences is to find inspiration. For that purpose, literary masterpieces can be very useful.
Estelle Liotard is a professional writer and translator who is passionate about all things digital. She’s currently working as a contributor on IsAccurate. Next to writing, she also enjoys reading and is a member of her local book club. She also works as a career advisor for high school students.