Well-written novel openings draw readers right into the story—and the really good ones convince readers to put aside whatever else they are doing!
Way back in 1993 we were packing up to move. I'd taken on the task of boxing up books (a much bigger task now). This involved sitting on the floor as I packed books into cardboard boxes. In the middle of this, I came across Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. I hadn't had a chance to read it yet, so I decided to take a peek. I opened the book and I began to read.
What did you ask, Andy Bisette? Do I “understand these rights as you've explained em to me”?
I didn't stop reading until I finished the book. This isn't as long as some of his books, but still. Instead of packing books into boxes so we could get moved—and we really wanted to get out of that place—I sat there and read the whole book! Effective openings have that kind of power. It isn't just the first page of the book either. Great novel openings show up at scene and chapter breaks too. They reel you in past all good sense.
Traits of Killer Novel Openings
Novel openings that pull in readers succeed by engaging the reader in different ways.
- Voice or language. The opening might use language, or a character voice that captures the reader's interest. In that first line of Dolores Claiborne her voice stands out. As the opening moves into the next paragraph it continues in her voice as well as bringing in sensory details.
- Sensory details. Engaging the reader's senses is a powerful way to drop someone into the novel, especially when you engage all five senses.
She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell. – Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
The J.D. Robb opening engages senses right in the first line and it also conveys the character's opinions of what she senses with words like ‘murky,' ‘shadowy bars,' and comparing it to waking in a cell. The opening is also effective at creating interest.
- Create Interest. Effective novel openings also generate interest. They raise questions in the reader's mind about the character, the setting, and the situation.
The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celsius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town. — Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
This opening raises questions right away about the body in the snow and the dispassionate character observing the body, noting details. Opinion comes into the sensory details as well, about the tavern. The next paragraph answers some of the questions and raises even more.
Openings Throughout Your Novel
We might just focus on openings when they occur at the beginning of the novel, but that would be a mistake. Each time there is a scene or chapter break, there is an opportunity to create another opening to draw the reader onward and deeper.
When Hodges returns to his chair with his small bundle of mail, the fight-show host is saying goodbye and promising his TV Land audience that tomorrow there will be midgets. Whether of the physical or mental variety he does not specify.— Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The previous chapter ended with the note that even though Hodges doesn't get anything interesting in the mail, he's going to get it anyway. This opening grounds the reader right back in that moment. We've cut ahead, but only so far as Hodges getting back to his chair with the mail. It's still that moment even with the small jump in time. As the chapter moves into the next paragraph King provides sensory details, voice, and creates interest. The tension remains even though Hodges is looking at his mail.
A musician practices. Maybe trying to get fingering right at the start or practicing a new chord. Later, the musician practices songs and more advanced techniques. If they are also a songwriter or composer, they may try creating their own work too, but they continue to practice. Every performance, each recording, is more practice.
Writers do the same thing whether we realize it or not. Practicing mindfulness around our writing, realizing that we do practice, and deciding what we want to practice can help us grow and develop as writers. There are a couple techniques that you can try to improve your practice and improve your novel openings.
Decide what you want to practice with each project. If you want to improve openings, note your intention to do so before you start. Leave that intent in the back of your mind and focus on writing. When you cycle back around, take a look at your openings whether at the beginning or at other points in the project. Have you included a strong voice or language? Sensory details that include the character's voice and opinion? Does the opening create interest?
You can also practice writing better openings by studying how other writers have written their openings.
Playing Other Writer's Openings
Just as a musician can practice by playing songs written by other musicians, writers can practice by typing other writer's work. To be perfectly clear, I'm not suggesting that you copy another writer's work and pass it off as your own! I'm talking about practice.
Sit down with a book you've enjoyed. Open whatever program you use to write (or notebook, or recorder) and type in the openings from the book. Go 2-3 paragraphs into each opening and then skip on ahead to the next scene break or the next chapter break.
Artificial intelligences, neural networks, learn by taking in data. “More input!” as Number 5 would say.
Our brains work the same way. Practice in this sense, physically typing in the work into your familiar instrument, teaches the techniques used. Don't bother saving the document when you're done. There's no need. Think of it just like a musician that decides to try playing a favorite song, or more specifically, certain parts of a song in order to learn something. By typing in the novel openings, you're teaching your neural network techniques.
Making a Practice Habit
This blog focuses on having a writing and publishing business while working full-time at another career. With everything else going on, how do you find time to practice? As with anything, focus helps.
If you're using RescueTime, you can set goals and alerts. You can integrate with Zapier to connect it to other tools that you use. Your practice session doesn't need to be long. Take a 10-minute break at work to practice openings. Pick some times and set a reminder, add it to your calendar, or just have the book on hand for the unexpected break.
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C. Auguste Dupin expects simple things out of his day. A sunny spot beside the fountain to nap. His tuna delivered at precisely the right time by librarian Penny Copper. He didn’t expect someone to stuff bodies in the book returns and disrupt his entire day!The only thing left to do? Apply his considerable intellect to the task of identifying the killer while guiding Penny to the answer.
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