Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ten Ways to Start a Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

The first sentence or paragraph of your novel is very important. It should hook your reader, pull them into the character's mind and situation, set the pace for the story, establish voice, or more. There are many ways to do this. Many more than I've listed below. But here are ten to get you thinking. And keep in mind, you can combine these methods too. The more you can do with one sentence, the better.

1. In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things. Many films begin this way, bringing the audience into the story by plopping them in the middle of life as the main character knows it. This is a great way to start fantasy stories since the storyworld is often vastly different from ours. Starting in medias res gives the reader a chance to see what's normal in this place. Here are some examples:
On Friday, Mr. Lynch walked around the classroom making sure everybody had written down the due date in their assignment books. Luckily, he started at the far side, giving Mitty Blake time to whisper to his best friend, Due date for what? ---Code Orange by Caroline B. Cooney
I like this beginning because we see where we are. In class. And then we see our character, on the far side of the room. But the word “luckily” tips us off to the fact that he's unprepared. Then we hear him as his friend “Due date for what?” and we get an idea of what kind of guy he is.

In my intro to By Darkness Hid, I wanted to show Achan's day-to-day life so that, as the story went on, the reader would know how drastically is was changing.
Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way. ---By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson

2. Zoom In
The zoom in is a great way to start a story. This is also done in many movies. Start far away and slowly zoom in to the character. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect example of this.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole. ---The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum 
And here is another example that works well:
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland. ---Holes by Louis Sachar

3. Dialogue
Dialogue is a great way to start a book, especially if that dialogue is interesting. Here are two very different examples of starting a book with dialogue:
Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ---Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get. ---Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

4. In the Middle of Action, Suspense, or Tension
Starting with something mysterious or in the middle of action helps avoid the boring beginning. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini gives us a windy night, a foreboding statement, and a mysterious creature. It makes us want to read more.
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes. ---Eragon by Christopher Paolini

And Rick Riordan uses the sarcastic voice of Percy Jackson to plop us right into the middle of action.
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car. ---The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

5. Surprise or Intrigue the Reader
Using a line that piques the reader's curiosity is a clever way of hooking the reader into the story. I've always loved this opening line from the first Alex Rider book.
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. ---Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
And this line from Failstate sets up the story perfectly in an intriguing way.
Being a superhero was hard enough. Being one on reality television . . . Why had I thought this was a good idea? ---Failstate by John Otte

6. Speak to the Reader
If you're writing in first person or in a diary form, you can speak directly to the reader.
Congratulations. The fact that you're reading this means you've taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday. Yes, you, standing there leafing through these pages. Do not put this book down. I'm dead serious-your life could depend on it. ---Maximum Ride by James Patterson
Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie. ---Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
I am not a good person. Oh, I know what the stories say about me. They call me Oculator Dramatus, Hero, Savior of the Twelve Kingdoms. . . . Those, however, are just rumors. Some are exaggerations; many are outright lies. The truth is far less impressive. ---Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson 

7. Start with a quote
Many books have quotes at the start of each chapter. And many readers skip them. So keep that in mind. But a quote can do a great job of foreshadow what's to come. It can be a quote from fictional characters or a quote from a real person. Both of these quotes set up the books they are in.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place. ---from Manual of Muad'Dib by the Princess Irulan
---Dune by Frank Herbert
If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation . . . it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.” ---W. M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News, Dec. 22, 1947
---Earth Abides by George R. Stewart 

8. Give the Facts
I pulled dozens of books off my shelf, and a statement about something that happened is one of the most popular ways to start a book. Here are two examples:
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. This is what happened: I walked into the produce section of the Winn-Dixie grocery store to pick out my two tomatoes and I almost bumped right into the store manager. He was standing there all red-faced, screaming and waving his arms around. ---Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift. When I cried inconsolably through my first hour of life, my tears were her inspiration. Shaking her head sympathetically at Mother, the fairy touched my nose. My gift is obedience. Ella will always be obedient. Now stop crying, child. 
I stopped. ---Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
On a wet Tuesday morning in December, Ernesto Bonilla, twenty-eight, shot his twenty-three-year-old wife, Alejandra, in the back yard of their West 45th Street home in South Los Angeles. As Alejandra lay bleeding to death, Ernesto proceeded to drive their Ford Explorer to the westbound Century Freeway connector where it crossed over the Harbor Freeway and pulled to a stop on the shoulder. ---Try Dying by James Scott Bell 

9. Make a Statement About Your Plot or Theme
This is a great way to start a story because you are foreshadowing either the plot or the theme of what the book will be about.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. ---Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. ---Matilda by Roald Dahl
I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that's the truth, the whole truth. The unvanquished truth, is how Freak would say it, and for a long time it was him who did the talking. Except I had a way of saying things with my fists and my feet even before we became Freak the Mighty, slaying dragons and fools and walking high above the world. ---Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

10. Foreshadow What Will Change
You can also start by giving readers a statement that foreshadows or symbolizes what will change in the book. In Maria V. Snyder's Inside Out, she starts the story with her main character asleep inside a pipe. By the end of the story we will see this character lead a group of people to get out of their captivity.
A vibration rippled through my body. I awoke in semi-darkness, unsure of my location. Reaching out with my hands, I felt smooth sides arching up and in. My fingers touched overhead. Pipe.---Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder
And in Melody Carlson's The Jerk Magnet, she starts with a statement that shows her main character as a shy girl, but by the end of the story that will change.
Sometimes the best way to handle rejection is to simply expect it. Just accept that antagonism is coming your way and get beyond it as quickly and quietly as possible. At least that was what Chelsea Martin had been telling herself since hitting adolescence. But with two more years of high school lurking ahead, her resolve, not to mention her patience, had worn thin. And she wondered . . . just how old did her peers have to become before they eventually grew up? Forty-eight, perhaps? Maybe by their thirtieth class reunion they would treat people humanely and with an iota of respect.---The Jerk Magnet by Melody Carlson

Some other things to remember:
As I said at the beginning of this post, the more you can do in that one sentence or paragraph, the better. Look at the first paragraph of your WIP and see if you give the reader one or more of the following: characterization, character voice, author voice, story style, mood, suspense, a question, familiarity, humor, action, description, the plot set up, the setting, foreshadowing. Which of the examples that I used in this post do the most of these?

What other ways could you start a story besides my list of ten ways?


  1. Thanks for the post! I was just getting ready to start a new novel of mine, and this helps out a lot!

  2. Thanks for the post. Some of those first paragraphs were really cool. I haven't started my novel yet, but I was thinking to start it in the middle (or end) of a soccer game. My MC loves soccer so it will be in medias res as well as in the middle of the action. Thanks again.

    1. That sounds like a good plan, Sofia. :-)

  3. For my finished book, I had two different POV thus two different "beginnings." I chose to make them similar in format but different to set them apart.

    The first was: My desire: finish freshman year of high school, enjoy a pleasant vacation, and treasure my family one last time before I die.
    The second was:My Challenge: Redeem my bad parenting, make Steve proud, and create a dream summer for Kaylee.

    For my WIP I chose more action: Either that was my hoagie at the door, or a group of officials here to search my apartment for anything not “ideal.”

    1. Those are fun, Alyson. Good job.
      That last one made me laugh. :-)

  4. Great post! Love these ideas! I mostly do Media-Res, but will be sure to give the others a try!

    1. Do what works for you, but it is fun to try new things sometimes too.

  5. Helpful! It's hard to remember you have to hook the reader right at the beginning--like fishing! I like how Christian author Andrew Klavan starts his novels: "You see that dead guy by the side of the road? … That's me. Sam Hopkins." ~Crazy Dangerous, by Andrew Klavan. He used an overstated flash forward paragraph to hook his readers. I know I was!

    1. That's a fun example, Jenneth. I've read that book too. It was good.

  6. Oooh, nice. Some of these got my brain wheels turning.

    I believe I used number 9 for the book I'm editing, "Different": "Everyone thinks homeschooling is weird, my big family is weird, and, most certainly, I’m weird. That’s only one group of people’s opinion, however, and definitely does not count as fact. I’ll admit it--I’m different. Always have been, always will be. And certainly I’m pretty weird at times. But the way everyone’s just not true."

    Just because I can't quite remember which I used on my others, let's go find them...

    "Living Rain": "You’d probably never think rain would cause so many problems, but all that means is you’ve never been to Zemelietus. In my country, rain is everything--rain is life. At least, it was."

    Hmm, I think that could possibly be 10, with a bit of 6.

    "Breaking Rain" (Living Rain's sequel): "'I have to go meet with the Council. I’ll be back in time for dinner.' My head shot up from the pair of Shyasis’ pants I was mending. 'What? Why? I thought since the rain was back they’d decided to leave us alone.'"

    Aha, dialogue! And perhaps a bit of 1.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Three cheers for being different! I personally like being different and I know people who know us think my who family can be "weird" at times (like once a day every day all day long). :) Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray!


    2. Opps, meant "whole" family not "who" family. We aren't THAT weird lol.


    3. Those are fun examples, Amanda. Thanks for sharing. And weird is awesome. :-)

    4. Thanks, both of you!

  7. I've kind of experimented with lots of different beginnings. Infact the beginning is what scares me more than the end. But dialogue and media res and in the middle of a scene are the ones I'm probably using with my WIPs at the moment.

    Thanks for this post. It really inspires me to try out even more beginnings and to understand what each of these different beginnings are. The possibilities are limitless.

    1. That is true. It's hard to finally pick one and go with it. :-)

  8. For all of my books that are NOT realistic, I always start with a paragraph or two from several years before where the story is. I really enjoyed reading this post! Thanks so much, Jill! :) BTW, for all of you who have NOT read Holes, you need to. ;)

    TW Wright

    1. Yes, Holes is a really fun book. And the movie was fun too.

  9. This was an awesome post, Jill! Thank you so much! The book I'm in the middle of writing starts in the middle of action, so number 4. But I think I''m going to change it so that it shows more a of a juxtaposition between where my heroine was and where she's going. It will probably still fall under 4, for the most part, though. Who knows? I'm not to the editing process yet. :D Thanks again for the post, though. It has some great thoughts in it!

    1. You are welcome! I think it's awesome when you can do some foreshadowing. But that usually comes in the rewrite stage for me too.

  10. This is a really cool post. I hadn't really thought about the fact that you can open a novel in so many different ways. Thanks, Jill!

  11. Cool. I probably should put more variety between my novels. All the examples you gave are very good. Except, I don't believe the first line in Eragon makes much sense, but it might just be me. Any who, this was a very useful post.

  12. These are brilliant!! I'm so glad you made a post about it!! :) The only one I kind of disagree with is the dialogue...gaaah, I feel like, when I'm reading dialogue first, that I'm being thrown into deep water without even a rubber duck to cling to. I don't know if it's a guy/girl, what tone they're using or anything. My favourite, though, is probably Giving The Facts (though I guess that only works in some genres). Excellent post, Jill! XD

    1. That's exactly why I like dialogue intros. It makes me wonder who's saying it and what tone they're using. It gets me thinking. I'm not a fan of Giving the Facts, because it makes me feel distant from the characters, unless it's done right.

  13. You've got a point, Cait. My favorite ones are probably in medias res and in the middle of action. Although "surprise or intrigue the reader" is pretty cool too.

    1. From Amo Libros:
      I think "surprise or intrigue the reader" is where my favorite first line (from Jessica Day George's "Dragon Slippers") falls:
      "It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon. Not that she was evil, or anything, it's just that she was, as we said in those parts, dumber than two turnips in a rain barrel."
      I love is, because our narrator seems to have a sense of humor (she doesn't sound mad), an interesting aunt, and of course, a dragon. Dragons are never boring. And since the narrator survived to tell us this story, something else must have happened, something pivotal. All of which make me want to read on!!!

  14. What a great list!!

  15. Great post! I prefer to use number 1 with 6! Most of my character's enviroments change rather extreamly, and so do they. I also write my stories most of the time in first person point of view so this works really well!

  16. I most often open my books with thoughts. I don't know why. XD You didn't mention that one here unless you consider that in the dialogue category.

    Stori Tori's Blog

  17. I started my first chapter with (POV FMC): "I guess I'm what you would call an introvert. My friends are in books, or; they are books." what do you think?