How to Write a Novel, Part 4: Opening Lines and First Chapters

Years ago, I read a fantasy novel my sister recommended. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of the genre, I thought it would be fun for us to follow a series together, so I tackled the dense paperback. The first few pages didn’t grip me. Neither did the first few chapters.

“It starts slow, but gets really good once the monsters attack the village,” my sister assured me. I kept going, chapter after tedious chapter, waiting for the dang monsters to make their promised appearance and gnaw the complacent characters into doing something interesting. At last, the fanged horde arrived…a quarter of the way through the 700+ page book.

In fairness to my sister, the story did prove enjoyable after that point. But if she hadn’t insisted, I would have set book aside after chapter two. I didn’t have patience to slog through a novella’s worth of drivel to get to the good stuff. In this case, however, the reward went beyond sharing book gossip with my sister. That ponderous first installment also taught me a valuable lesson in storycraft. Ever since, I’ve tried to begin my own stories right at the inciting action. No matter how brilliant your novel’s conceptcharacters, or plot, a poor opening can dissuade readers before they ever get into the story. In an era of notoriously short attention spans, an author must capture the reader’s interest from the get-go.

First Lines

The first opportunity to arrest a reader’s attention is the story’s opening line. That first sentence is a portal into the story’s world. It can hook the reader right away and keep them turning pages. For writers, it serves as a springboard for the rest of the story. A sharp opening might:

  • Inspire questions.
  • Immerse the reader in a sensory experience.
  • Foreshadow the remainder of chapter (or entire book).
  • Establish narrative voice/tone.
  • Imply intriguing information about the story

Good first lines can deliver a lot of information without seeming to do so, provoking subconscious curiosity. Take a look at the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“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.”

Immediately, we know some misfortune must befall the Colonel for him to wind up in front of a firing squad. There’s surely an exciting story there! What does he mean, “discover ice”? Any why is he thinking of it now, looking down the business end of a rifle? With just one line, Marquez makes us hungry to hear his tale.

Strong voices also shine in opening lines. Like a Santana guitar solo, we know right away to whom we’re listening, and we want to hear more. Catcher in the Rye displays this technique with virtuosity. The first words we hear from Holden Caulfield are snarky, disaffected, and entrancing. His distinct voice provides an instant, intimate gateway into the story:

“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.”

A novel’s first line can also set tone. One of my favorite novel openers comes from William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

There’s a haiku quality to this line. It goes beyond describing a grey sky and evokes something deeper about the technology-saturated society where the story takes place. The color of television is a highly  modern analogy. A dead channel conjures static, a sense of being disconnected or unplugged. All these subtleties reflect the book’s larger themes.

Opening lines are an art unto themselves. Stephen King expounded upon their importance in an excellent piece The Atlantic ran in 2013. According to King, “an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

First Chapters

If the opening line is the bait, the first chapter is the hook. That piece of story bears a lot of responsibility. It has the unenviable task of delivering on all the first line’s seductive promises.  From a functional perspective, the first chapter should:

  1. Introduce the protagonist
  2. Identify the protagonist’s problem/goal
  3. Introduce (or at least reference) the antagonist/obstacles
  4. Set tone/theme
  5. Establish setting
  6. Create conflict
  7. Set reader expectations

Chapter one provides the foundation of the entire story to come. Most of them reflect one of two common structures:

  1. The three-act opening. We start with a glimpse of the central character’s everyday life, then something disrupts the status quo and drives the character to action, kicking off the narrative. Blue Karma begins this way. We meet Logan waiting in line for his family’s water ration, which introduces us to his water-starved world. When he learns rations will again fall short, he decides to try something drastic to get more water. Trouble—and the rest of the story—ensures.
  2. In medias res. This Latin phrase, meaning “in the middle of things,” is shorthand for plunking the reader down amidst an already-unfolding crisis. For example, Lord of the Flies opens with boys shipwrecked on a beach. Golding could have begun on the boat before the storm, but how much of that would have been germane to the story? It’s bolder and more exciting to start among the wreckage. Well-executed, in medias res can draw readers into a scene and keep them there.

Prologues and Cons

But wait! you might think. Not all books begin with chapter one. What about prologues? Prologues are tricky little hobgoblins. Employed with skill, they can engage the reader while providing critical information.

One effective use is “framing” the larger narrative with a separate-but-related incident. Ever read a mystery that starts with a prologue from the murderer’s or victim’s point of view? It gives the readers an intriguing glimpse of the criminal they, and the investigator whom they accompany, will pursue for the rest of the book. In a thriller, the prologue might show villains plotting against a target or a scientist losing control of her volatile creation before the protagonist begins tackling the problem in chapter one. This device advances the narrative in a more interesting way than, say, having a side character tell the reader what happened.

Prologues are also useful for witnessing a past incident that’s crucial to the story’s start. I began Blue Karma with a prologue because the scene takes place a year or two before the main narrative. I felt that such a temporal leap between chapters one and two would disorient the reader. Instead, I set that scene apart in the prologue.

But prologues can also sabotage your novel. They can enable lazy storycraft, offering shortcuts for shoddy plot structure or serving as landfills for unincorporated backstory. A dull, rambling prologue can cause readers to put book the aside before the story truly begins. If you’re wondering whether a prologue is the right device for your novel, ask yourself these questions:

Prologue flowchart

A honed opening line, followed by a dynamic first chapter, can entrance readers from the start. Learn how to keep them turning pages in Part 5, Dynamic Dialogue.

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