Writing Beginnings: the first chapter of your novel

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again".

That's one of the most famous first sentences in the world, from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier,and it's a good illustration of the power of a good opening.

Your opening paragraph is the most important in the whole book - it's what draws your reader into the story. People often think that means it must be exciting, or shocking, action-packed or dramatic. Wrong!

You want your reader to be hooked from the first sentence!
You want your reader to be hooked from the first sentence!
Elements of Fiction Writing - Beginnings, Middles & Ends
Elements of Fiction Writing - Beginnings, Middles & Ends

Some good examples of good and bad beginnings - plus, of course, middles and ends as well!

 

Hooking the Reader

The job of an opening sentence is to leave the reader intrigued, curious to know more - like that wistful first sentence from Rebecca. The first few lines of your novel should make your reader ask a question which can only be answered by continuing to read.

Here are some more opening lines to illustrate my point:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice". - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." - Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

All of these opening lines make you wonder. Why is Buendía facing a firing squad? Why did the phone ring and what was the "it" it started? Why were the clocks striking thirteen?

Of course, there are successful novels with opening lines that don't raise questions, but they're successful in spite of, not because of, their beginning. And their authors weren't having to market their own work - if you're self-publishing, you need to use all the weapons you can muster to catch your readers!

Anyway, there's more to it than just one sentence. It can be quite easy to come up with an intriguing first sentence, but if you satisfy the reader's curiosity too early, they'll put the book down again. You want to draw them further into the story, beyond page 2, so they have to buy the book to find out the rest.

If you can't find a way to create that curiosity over your first few pages, chances are you've started your story in the wrong place.


Cut the Backstory

A common mistake for newbie writers is to use their first chapter to set up the story.

Wrong!   To keep your reader interested, you need to throw them into the story from page 1. If you start giving them a lot of background for a story they don't know yet, they'll lose interest.

There are plenty of techniques to fill the reader in on the background as you go along, so don't risk losing them before you even start! This is such a big topic I've created a separate article on backstory.

When a Prologue Works

In many books and courses about writing, you'll be told you should never use a prologue - precisely because so many new writers use the the prologue to dump all their backstory. In fact, it's perfectly OK to write a prologue if the story demands it - but it's the last place you should put back-story!

Your readers won't look at the headings when they start reading the book.  They won't think, "Oh, this is just a Prologue, that's why it's boring - but I'm sure Chapter 1 will be interesting."   If you're going to write a prologue, it must follow the same rules as a first chapter - it must grab the reader and lure them into your story.

A prologue picks a pivotal scene from either your backstory or your main story, and tells it in isolation. If you've tried everything to create an effective hook at the beginning of your "real' story, and failed, a prologue can be your solution.

For instance, in the first chapter of my upcoming novel, the heroine gets involved with Yuri, a smooth charmer who's really a Russian mafioso. The chapter is written from the heroine's point of view. As you'll know if you've read my Hub on Point of View, that means I can't reveal anything she doesn't know herself - so I have no way to let the reader know the man's true nature. So the chapter reads like a romantic encounter - nothing there to pique the reader's interest.

I've tried starting the novel later in the story, but it creates all kinds of problems which I can't resolve. Instead, I've added a prologue, set some years before the main story. Yuri's brother Peter is approached by a Mafioso, who tells him that Yuri is alive, and attempts to blackmail Peter into working for the Mafia too.

That hooks the reader in several ways. During the prologue, the reader is wondering why the two brothers were estranged, and whether Peter did what the Mafia wanted. When they get to chapter 1, they know Yuri isn't the wealthy businessman he appears - and they wonder if the heroine will get burnt.

The thing to remember is - never add a prologue lightly. Always try to find a way around it first.But if you've tried everything else, a prologue is nothing to be afraid of.

The main thing to remember is that your opening lines can make or break your novel, so it's worth investing the time to make them the best they can be!

Don't Murder Your Mystery [Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book]
Don't Murder Your Mystery [Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book]

This isn't a book about how to write a mystery - it's a book about how to prevent agents and publishers "murdering" your novel before it's born. It includes advice on "perilous prologues" and "hobbled hooks".

 

*

All text copyright Marisa Wright. Photo by Ed Yourdon

Comments 44 comments

A1an profile image

A1an 2 years ago

Thank You! for sharing these helpful insights.


Ceres Schwarz profile image

Ceres Schwarz 3 years ago

Interesting hub. I do agree that you really need a very interesting beginning to hook your readers and get them to continue reading your story. If they're bored, they'll just end up leaving. I think it's also necessary that readers don't get confused with what they're reading.


Su M. Mary 3 years ago

Very true about the prologues. They are inherently boring (at least to me. Get to the story, already!!), and I skip them when I can help it. I prefer to gather the backstory as I read, rather than having to remember whatever I was told at the beginning of the book. I read the prologue to the Pern novels once, promptly forgot it, and never cared because the story wasn't much affected without it.


bdom7711 profile image

bdom7711 4 years ago

That dagum first line...it's the only part of my book I haven't wrote yet! Great article, hoping to find the perfect 'hook' soon.


bloggernotjogger profile image

bloggernotjogger 4 years ago from La Cala de Mijas, Spain

I´m so glad to have come across this hub. It is exactly the kind of info I need. I will be reading a lot more of your hubs.


Bbudoyono profile image

Bbudoyono 5 years ago

I am writing my first novel. This hub is very informative. Thanks a lot.


FemPen profile image

FemPen 5 years ago from Florida

You are correct about the backstory. New writers overdo it and end up never getting published because of needless words and lack of gall to take advice. My first edit was a nightmare but you learn from it, and can grow into a wonderful novelist.


Mind Unsettled profile image

Mind Unsettled 5 years ago from In My Head

Great information. I now have to go check all my openings :)


Serwya 5 years ago

Thank you very much. Finished my first novel. Upon re reading, the beginning is dry compared to the phenomenal story event. Thank you. I now hear a great opening voice in my head.


Jessica 5 years ago

This has been so helpful. I'm currently writing a novel and come across this. It's took me a while but I've finally come up with a more captivating first sentence in my book. Thank you for the tips!


RichardCMckeown profile image

RichardCMckeown 5 years ago

oh! I think the most difficult part to do is to write beginnings. Thanks for sharing tips..


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 5 years ago from Sydney Author

@Abelle, I like the opening line because it lets me know you have wings. However, it could be worded a whole lot better. Think more about how your wings feel and describe that in more detail.


Abelle 5 years ago

I LOVE writing, and this was just what I was looking for. I'm almost 12, and I've written a novel that is currently a mess. How does this sound as an opening line: "I swoop down with my wings, the pressure of air beating my face lovingly, as if a protection for me". I'm not sure I just want an expert's opinion. Another GREATTT opening line is "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." loooove Pride and Prejudice :)


Susan Ann 5 years ago

Good information.. bravo and rated up!


Annabelle 5 years ago

Thx for this!! :D I'm a preteen, and I LOVE to write stories. When I'm older I want to be a writer and a ballerina, so I really enjoy reading about both of those things!!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Very helpful. I voted it up. Thanks!


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

I thought that this hub is so useful and informative that I am giving it a useful plus bookmarking it in my most useful hubs.I have only just come across you on here and I am looking forward to reading more of your work. Thank you so much for sharing and take care Marisa.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney Author

Adele, I think you're asking the wrong question. Remember the opening few pages of your book are what engages the reader. That's the case even if it is a sequel. So ask yourself, is a chapter/prologue relating the character's feelings going to get a reader interested enough to read the rest of the book?

One other point - if you ever want to get published, the first book of your fantasy series must be complete in itself. If it ends in a cliff-hanger, or leaves too much unfinished, no publisher will ever touch it.


Adele 6 years ago

I have just finished writing my fantasy novel, and I have just started the sequel to it. I am not sure if the starting chapter of my sequel is chapter 1 or a prologue. At the end of my first book a main character dies, but in the past sentence, she comes back alive (by magical means( The first chapter/prolouge of the sequel is from her point of view about how she felt was dying etc. And also how and why she came back alive.

Is that a prolouge or chapter 1? Can there even be a proloug in sequels?


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney Author

Jenny, it sounds like your using your prologue the right way.

When you get to that point in the main narrative, you will need to repeat the same scene. Bear in mind that not all readers will clearly remember the prologue! How you repeat it is up to you.

Personally, I think repeating the same first paragraph is a good idea. For readers who DO remember the prologue, it will give them a moment of recognition. However, you don't want to bore your readers, so I would then tell the rest of the scene in different words.


Jenny 6 years ago

I am a new writer and am rapidly realizing how much I love it. I am a bit green, however, when it comes certain structure issues. My question is this....

I'm using a prologue. (I know that many writers are completely against these. I'm not using it as back story, mine is a glimpse of suspense to come.)

My prologue is more of a snippet, if you will, of something that will eventually happen to my protagonist much later in the book. When I eventually get to that point in my story, I'm not entirely sure how to tie it back in. Will I reiterate the same scene I used in the prologue, or skip to the ending of the prologue, and take up where I left off? I am a bit confused as to how that works. It would be much more cut and dry if my prologue were something that happened before chapter 1, but I love to suck the reader in by promising really great conflict to come. As I said, I am a very green and welcome advice and constructive criticism. Thanks so much to anyone who has a minute to help!


-Capone- 6 years ago

Awesome! This really helped me. I'm writing a historical fiction novel.


Fantasy Writer 6 years ago

In response to William F. Torpey:

First of all, writing fiction is very rewarding (not just in cash) and you should at least try it out if you have an interest. Secondly, I completely agree that if an introduction or prologue is too lengthy or detailing an inherently boring scene, it is all too easy to skip. I once heard (I don't remember who from) that a classic novel is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. For some classics, I think I must agree.


Steele Fields profile image

Steele Fields 6 years ago from drexel hill,pa

Excellent advice and well-written. I wish you much success with your novel.


ACSutliff profile image

ACSutliff 6 years ago

I totally agree with you on the first chapter. My husband read my book and told me he wanted to know more about my characters and thought I should have a prologue to show what happened to them in the past, and that's how I knew I was doing something right.

I'll be coming back to read the next one!


mikicagle profile image

mikicagle 6 years ago from Oklahoma

Awesome hub. I learned a lot. Thanks for writing this hub in such a clear and concise manner


Leptirela profile image

Leptirela 6 years ago from I don't know half the time

Powerful- Informative and easy to understand...straight to the point I love this hub which is why il keep coming back to it..thank you for sharing :)

Hmm.....Abe Normal?! WHO?


phoenixgbr profile image

phoenixgbr 6 years ago

Great stuff thanks - and the New York Trilogy is my fav work.


lisa brazeau profile image

lisa brazeau 6 years ago from Canada

Wonderful!Thank you.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney Author

You've never read Rebecca? I've heard the expression "The Hook" used more often to refer to what you do at the end of a chapter, to make sure the reader continues to the next one. But you're right, you're trying to hook the reader in.


Abe Normal profile image

Abe Normal 6 years ago from Gigantic Ocean Seaboard

Uh huh (Rebecca?) ... it's called "The Hook," and notably, there's one in "Huckleberry Finn" as Twain starts the novel ... "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." Rebecca? What the fu.?


Ugo A 6 years ago

just wanna say thank you so much for this information, i want to be a writer but dont know how to start, much thanks to hubpages.com and Marisa Wrights


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I've never seriously considered writing fiction, Marisa, but your advice here is clearly excellent. I'll always remember nearly making a critical mistake when I came close to putting aside Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" because the lengthy opening chapter detailed the funeral of King Edward so laboriously. I'm sure glad I decided to finish the book, which turned out to be my favorite. If a reader puts the book down because of a poorly written opening, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the book is written.


ChristyJC profile image

ChristyJC 6 years ago from Texas

Great hub! Gives us newbies some foundation to build on! Thanks! :D


Springboard profile image

Springboard 6 years ago from Wisconsin

First lines are certainly what suck you in. You read them and you kind of say to yourself, "this is going to be one hell of a ride."

The first line in one of my favorite books, "Ghost Story" by Peter Straub, IMO is one of the best opening lines I've ever read—not to discount the ones you've illustrated here, of course.

"What's the worst thing you've ever done?"

That was it. If you put the book down after reading that line, if you were able to, it'd be a good time to go and see a doctor and make sure the heart was still pumping.

Nice hub, and very informative. I'll be back.


hubpageswriter 6 years ago

Very well written, for sure. And the illustration is also very cool. Novel writing is not easy, but not too hard as well. You are right when you said to get readers hooked. I think that's the most important aspect of all.


Shelly McRae profile image

Shelly McRae 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Great hub, Marisa. Clean and comprehensible explanation of a difficult concept.


midnighteden profile image

midnighteden 6 years ago from UK

This is a really informative hub, especially the part about cutting down the backstory. I have found that when approaching fiction, it is tempting to try to include too much backstory straight away. The three different options of how the story about the great-grandfather could have started are very clear and great way of illustrating the point being made.

Thanks for the hub.


hypnodude profile image

hypnodude 6 years ago from Italy

This is very interesting. I'm not ready yet for a novel but I'm thinking around a short story, and I'll use your informations and advices. Bookmarked and really appreciated.


PWalker281 6 years ago

Great hub! I tried fiction writing a time or two but just never got the hang of it (after years of technical writing). Maybe reading more of your hubs will encourage me to revisit it.

An example of my curiosity being satisfied too early was the first 4 episodes of the new TV drama "V." The original program aired in the early 80s and kept viewers guessing the identity and motives of the Visitors over several episodes. This new version revealed their identity at the end of the first episode. Huge disappointment for me! But I'll probably keep watching it when it comes back on.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

Very interesting - made us think of some of our favourite 1st lines.

Good luck with your novel.


Sue Adams profile image

Sue Adams 6 years ago from Andalusia

Yes, that's definitely the key to get the beginning right, incite the reader's curiosity so they want to buy the book.


G-Ma Johnson profile image

G-Ma Johnson 6 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

Wow this was great information...I may need to go change a few things In what I am working on... It is all so new to me, (writing a novel) but I now have 2 I am working....:O) Hugs G-Ma and Thanks


Windsweptplains profile image

Windsweptplains 6 years ago from The windsweptplains of Colorado

Thank you for this interesting and informative hub! I totally agree, several books have been off-putting for me because of lengthy prologues (Les Miserables, Ben-Hur, etc.).

This was very helpful for me!

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    More by this Author


    Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright2,804 Followers
    98 Articles

    Marisa Wright created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites (for herself and others), ever since.



    Click to Rate This Article
    working