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Where to Begin? You Novel's Opening Scene

Updated on April 25, 2014

The Hook

We live in an age where it is easier than ever to publish a novel. Besides traditional publishing houses, there are indie publishers and even self-publishing. Of course, the drawback is that the market is now flooded with novels, which means it is more important than ever to stand out. People have no many things to occupy their time that you really have to hook them quickly to draw them into your story.

This is certainly true of publishers. Even indie publishers are bombarded daily with queries and unsolicited manuscripts. They simply don't have the time to read through all of these novels, many of which are sub-par and poorly written. Therefore, the opening of your novel must be strong. Otherwise, there is a good chance the publisher simply won't read past the first page.

The same goes for readers. Online booksellers like Amazon and Smashwords provide free samples for most novels, so a lot of potential readers are going to open up your free sample and check out the first few pages. If they are not hooked by what they see, there is little chance they will buy the book.

Maybe you're not sure how to start your novel or how to make those opening paragraphs more compelling. Here are some tips.

Avoid Exposition

Exposition is a passage in a novel that provides background information, such as character history. Sometimes it is referred to as an "information dump." It is tempting particularly for authors of science fiction and fantasy to want to give the backdrop or to explain the way things work in their imaginary world before jumping into the story. Don't do it!

Yes, Tolkien has a massive prologue in The Lord of the Rings describing hobbits, explaining their history, culture, customs and general temperament, but you are not Tolkien, and more importantly you are not writing a novel in the same sort of literary environment or book market as Tolkien.

Yes, readers might very well need to understand the political climate of your imaginary kingdom, the way magic works, or the history that led to colonizing the distant world on which your story is set, but you can work all of that into the story later. And when you do, try to do it without heaping a bunch of information on them all at once. Let the information be revealed in bite-sized chunks, unfolding naturally along with the story.

Opening your novel with a bunch of dry background history is a sure way to get your novel tossed into the trash by a publisher. Don't do it!

Jump Right into the Story

My recommendation is to jump right into the story. Let the first paragraph give an immediate sense of why this story will be interesting. Introduce conflict right away. My first published novel was a Young Adult urban fantasy novel called Mary of the Aether. Take a look at the opening sentences:

The lunatic in the long, gray cloak dashed out of the forest and ran right up onto the front yard, waving his arms in front of him like a child playing tag. He skirted the porch, paused, turned a complete circle and fell onto his hands and knees.

It's a strange opening that is meant to pique the reader's interest. As the paragraph unfolds, we discover that our protagonist is sitting at her living room window, waiting for the school bus and watching this mysterious lunatic crawl around in her yard. From the very beginning, I have hopefully created a sense of foreboding and introduced conflict that will drive the reader deeper into the story.

Or consider the opening sentences of my recent science fiction novel, Children of the Mechanism:

The blare of the morning alarm always started in his dreams, sometimes as a monster screaming, sometimes as a boy talking to him, sometimes as a strange noise rising up out of the Refuse Hole like a siren song. Then it followed him through the stages of waking and finally, as he opened his eyes in the dim, red light, he heard it echoing off the metal walls, a singular note, high and harsh.

Without giving a bunch of exposition, this opening is meant to quickly convey the strangeness and danger of the protagonist's environment. Immediately, we have a monster screaming, something about a Refuse Hole, a dim, red light, and a harsh alarm blaring. All of these things are intended to make the reader say, "Who is this person, and what sort of crazy, dangerous world is he waking up to?"

It doesn't have to be an action scene. It could be a bit of dialogue, but whatever it is, it needs to draw the reader in right away. Give a sense of tension, mystery, danger or intrigue from that very first sentence.

Don't Overdo It

My earliest novels often opened with dull exposition. At some point, I realized I needed more dramatic openings, but I overdid it. Your opening sentence or paragraph can be so over the top that it causes readers to scoff at it. An opening scene that is filled with ludicrous amounts of gore might strike readers as absurd. Publishers are wary of young writers who try (and usually fail) to be shocking, so reign it in a little bit.

Now, if you are writing a horror novel, this might be a bit trickier. Your opening scene needs to convey a sense of fear and dread, but remember that publishers have seen countless examples of amateurish writers trying to be provocative. They won't be impressed.

All they are looking for is an effective hook to pull them in, to make them want to keep reading. With your opening paragraph you are giving some hint as to what the rest of the novel will be like.

Jump Ahead in the Timeline

A mistake many young writers make is starting their story too early in the sequence of events. Move ahead a little bit in the story. Start at a point where things are already interesting, where tension is already mounting and key conflicts have already been set up. You can always fill in the details about earlier events in later chapters.

For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone doesn't open with Harry in his crib. It opens by introducing his conflict with the Dursleys, hinting at the tension between the muggle world and the world of magic, a tension that will carry throughout the series. Harry is already eleven years old in chapter one, and many key events have already transpired. But these are explained later on.

Grab Their Attention and Run With It

Open strong and readers will forgive some slower passages along the way. Grab their interest early and run with it, and they will endure a bit of exposition or long-winded conversations down the road. However, the opening generates a certain amount of energy that you don't want to lose completely. Keep some of that tension, and it will carry readers all the way to the end.

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