Novel Openings

How to Craft Effective Novel Openings (Even in the Middle of Your Book)

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.

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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

Novel Openings example

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.

Practicing Openings

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.

Deliberate Practice

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.

Writer T-Shirt

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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Quadrangle

Don’t Talk to Me About Ideas

Where do you get your ideas for stories? Do they come in the mail along with other assorted junk destined for landfills? Or maybe the muse's breath tickles the fine hairs on your neck with whispered inspiration? I've heard that some ideas are inhaled on the misty vapors of a hot shower. A man I knew in New York swore that he got his best ideas while eating big, crisp, dill pickles as long as his hand.

Don't Go Hunting for Ideas—Target Characters Instead

Ideas don't matter. An idea isn't a story. Here's an idea:

An asteroid hits the Earth.

It's happened before and it will happen again. Arthur C. Clarke used it in the opening of his classic book Rendezvous With Rama. Other writers have created numerous other tales about impact events in books and movies. It's an old, well-used idea. Does that mean you can't use it? Of course not!

Just decide who you want to write about because it's their story that matters.

Compare Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Armageddon. Very different takes on the idea because the characters are different! The story emerges from the character.

Pick on Your Characters—It's Your Job

Characters exist somewhere, in a place. And they exist in some sort of situation. They have a life that exists before the first page of your story. That situation or problem may not (probably isn't) the main problem of the story. It could be related. Unfortunately for your character, things are about to get much worse. Almost as if there is someone deliberately making things hard for them. Oh, wait, there is! We don't read stories about characters where everything goes terrifically well all the time for the character. Things get worse for the character. They try to solve one problem and fail. That ‘try-fail' cycle repeats. Each time they do their best but things keep getting worse until they either succeed or fail for the last time.

Damon Knight describes the Quadrangle: Character, Setting, Situation, and Emotion in his book Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction.

Story Quadrangle described by Damon Knight

I like this visualization of the concept. It neatly captures the character, situation, setting and adds an important factor—emotion into the mix. He explores each of these factors (and much more) in his book. It's well worth reading!

Where do you get your ideas?

What do you turn to for ideas? Do you agree that ideas don't matter? Let me know in the comments!

Apple drizzled with honey

5 Ways to Draw Readers Into Your Story or Novel

“The air in the shop smelled of talcum, resin, and tissue, with a faint, almost indefinable undertone of pine and acid-free paper.” (“There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire)

Smell

Sensory details draw readers into your story or novel. Evoking one's sense of smell is one of the most potent ways to do this. Scents tie us to our memories and create a powerful sense of place. An opening of a story should draw the reader in and anchor them in the story. Scents can also substitute for taste, think of the smell of sugar when someone opens a box of fresh donuts. Or the way overripe apples smell almost like cider late in the season as they drop from the trees to rot among the grass.

“Humans called it the Medusa. Its long twisted ribbons of gas strayed across fifty parsecs, glowing blue, yellow, and carmine. Its central core was a ghoulish green flecked with watery black.” (“Hardfought” by Greg Bear)

Sight

As surprising as it might be, sometimes we forget to include sight in our story. Our characters appear, converse, and interact without any word of where they are located. Sensory details emerge through the character. All of the senses, including sight, are interpreted by the character. Your characters will notice different things about the setting and have different opinions about it. In the “Hardfought” opening, Bear shows the characters opinion even before naming the character by describing the nebula as “ghoulish green” and “watery black.” In the next paragraph, introducing the character Prufrax describes the nebula further as “malevolent” and goes on revealing character details. This not only draws the reader into the story, it also reveals character details.

“Rinna Sen paced backstage, tucking her mittened hands deep into the pockets of her parka. The sound of instruments squawking to life cut through the curtains screening the front of the theater: the sharp cry of a piccolo, the heavy thump of tympani, the whisper and saw of forty violins warming up.” (“Ice in D Minor” by Anthea Sharp)

Hearing

Sounds convey so much of the character's experience to the reader and provide another powerful way to anchor the reader in the story. In Anthea Sharp's story, the contrast in the first line with the second is interesting and tells us something is different about this scene. The sounds of the orchestra immediately provide a sense of place and tell us the character's view of the instruments. It also reveals that the character knows each of the instruments.

Often sound is coupled with other senses. Or the absence of sound can reveal details about the setting and the character. As with the other senses, it all flows from the character. To one character the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the office ceiling, the flickering of a dying bulb, might drive them batty. The other person in the office doesn't notice the buzzing of the lights but does notice how the person sharing the office is always snacking on M&Ms, making smacking noises that drive them crazy.

“When he was very young, he waved his arms, gnashed the teeth of his massive jaws, and tromped around the house so that the dishes trembled in the china cabinet.” (“Dinosaur” by Bruce Holland Rogers)

Touch

Touch adds an additional sense of being physically present in the setting. It gives the character solidity. The character lives in the environment—they aren't a disembodied bundle of cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Touch links us to the character and setting. It's also overlooked. It might seem unlikely, how do you miss a sense of touch? Suppose that you write, ‘John picked out an apple from the basket'. There are no specific details in that description. It isn't filtered through the character's sense of touch, or opinions. ‘John plucked an apple from the basket, the skin giving beneath the gentle pressure of his fingers to reveal the worm-blasted rot inside.' Or, ‘John selected an apple from the basket and relished the crisp firmness ripe with juicy potential.' Two different experiences, sensations, and opinions of the apple.

“Cat waited for a moment as she stepped into the bakery, the bell dangling from the door announcing her arrival. Trays of baked goods surrounded her. Silver trays with goodies packed to the edge—baklava, chocolate sponge cake layers held by ganache and lemon cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, the lemon filling betrayed by the dollop of neon-yellow filling on the center right on top.” (“True Calling” by Irette Y. Patterson)

Taste

Patterson's opening evokes several senses. It also evokes a sense of taste simply from the description of the baked goods. The character pays attention to the pastries. She knows what they are and there's a sense of relish as she takes it in. Although the scents aren't explicitly mentioned, the description evokes the scents of sugar and lemon. Some words have a strong association with scents and taste. The two often go together. In this case, it's enough to make the mouth water. As the opening continues, the sense of taste is further utilized to ground the reader and develop the character.

Taste is one of the senses—like a sense smell—that has strong associations with memory. We associate tastes with events and times in our life. A character's sense of taste can also link them back to memories and gives the character a feeling of reality outside of the page. They came from somewhere. They didn't just start on the page.

Evoking All Five Senses Every 500 Words

Author Dean Wesley Smith recommends hitting all five senses quickly in each opening, whether the start of a story or a scene opening and again every 500 words. It grounds the reader and keeps them in the story. This is an area of craft that I plan to practice as I write my weekly stories. I also plan to go back to familiar stories and look at how the author used the senses in their stories.

Who Does This Very Well?

What writer, story, or book engaged your senses? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Typewriter

Stranger Than Fiction: Learning Story Through Practice

I like the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I've watched it many times. It's fun, even though it shows an image of a writer as an eccentric, chain-smoking, and depressed person subject to the demands of a publisher, working in a spacious suite with marble floors. A literary author. It's an odd view of a writer, but one that reflects many of the stereotypes around writers.

“Sitting in the rain won't write books.”

Despite this, I really enjoy the characters in this story. Harold pulls me into the story. That's something that I want to do in my own work.

Learning From Story

What do you do when you enjoy a story, be it a movie or a book? Do you ask why? What did the story's writer do to pull you into the story? How did they do it? Especially when you come back to a story more than once.

We pick up story everywhere. Our whole lives we here, read, and watch stories. Our subconscious picks up on story. It filters through and comes out when we write. With focused attention, we can study works we enjoy to pick up techniques. Dean Wesley Smith covers this in his lectures on Practice.

My Plan

In coming at this reboot of my writing career, learning is key. I've spent many years writing and I continue to learn. After finishing my MLIS degree I realize that I need to focus much more on learning my craft as a fiction writer. I always want to get better. I want my writing to improve. This year is a year of reflection, planning, and rebirth.

I'm looking forward to it.

I'm writing a story each week and I plan to practice as I write those stories. So far I'm hitting each week this year (I started back in December). I create a card on my Trello board for each story which includes the deadline, target word count, and I've added a field for the technique I plan to practice.

Trello card with custom fields

This gives me an easy reminder each time I look at the card. I've added the word count and the topic using the custom fields power-up. I'll update the word count when I finish the story. And a title. When I finish the story, it goes out to a market following Heinlein's Business Rules.

How Do You Practice Writing?

What about you? What do you do to learn and improve your craft? Are there resources you recommend? Techniques that work for you?