One of the most important sentences in every novel is the first one. It hooks the reader in and tempts them with the story to come. There are multiple ways to open your novel, but here are the six most common and where they’re most effective:
1. Give a general statement
Seventy percent of the time, opening a novel with a general statement implies literary fiction or that the work delves into deeper, more thematic elements than just an engaging plot. It places the reader into a certain mindset, having them view the story through a prescribed lens.
Here are a few examples:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” – Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
2. Introduce a character
This is my personal favorite way, and the one I think can be most effective if you really want to grip readers early on. The reason it works is because it automatically gives the reader someone to empathize with, relate to, or find entertaining.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis (1952)
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998)
3. Describe the setting
What sort of world does the story inhabit? Some writers like to set the stage before introducing the players. Starting off with worldbuilding can set up the characters and action for the reader, because it gives them a setting and some context for where and how the story is taking place.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
“‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer by William Gibson
4. Peek into a character’s thoughts
This one tends to be more common with first-person narratives and gives immediate insight into who we’re dealing with here. It also sets up a frame of mind and a lens through which the reader can start the book—for example, in the beginning sentences of The Catcher in the Rye (below), we already know from the start that this story will be full of angst, its main character cynical and inwardly lonely. Starting with a character’s thoughts sets the mood from the opening words.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” – The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (1967)
5. Jump right into the action
While opening with the setting or a character’s thoughts will guide a reader into a story’s world, starting off with action will yank them straight into the plot. It’s a tried-and-true way to begin an adventure or action novel, or any work that requires quick pacing or suspense.
”There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.'” – The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
“The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.” – Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.” – The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan (2009)
6. Open with dialogue
Most writing advice websites caution against opening with dialogue, because it places characters in a vacuum—readers have no context, setting, or information to understand who is speaking and why. However, it can be done effectively depending on how riveting the dialogue itself is, or if the dialogue establishes where and where the story takes place.
“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” – Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (1952)
“‘You’ll have to go to school, Elizabeth!’ said Mrs. Allen. ‘I think your governess is quite right. You are spoilt and naughty, and although Daddy and I were going to leave you here with Miss Scott, when we went away, I think it would be better for you to go to school.'” – The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton (1940)
“‘Yes,’ said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. ‘What d’you want?’ A harassed middle-aged woman in a green coat and felt hat stood on his step.” – Goodnight Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian (1981)
There are, of course, even more ways to start a novel besides the six here. Look at what kind of story you want to tell to best determine the opening, and as always, have people read over what you have to determine what opener comes off as bland what opener hooks in the reader and doesn’t let go.