Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)
Last time I talked about how to write a great first scene. Today it'll feel like I'm backing up because I'm going to talk specifics about first lines/first paragraphs of your story. But most of the time, I have to have an idea of what my first scene is going to look like and where I'm starting the book before I can think of the best way to open.
Same as with opening scenes, there are lots of great ways to structure the first sentence, or first few sentences, of your novel. Whatever you choose, you want to make sure that you're promising the right thing to your reader. That means you don't want to start off with a funny opening if your book isn't humorous. Or something deep and poignant if your book is meant to be a lighthearted adventure story. You want to find an opening that fits the mood of your story, whatever that may be.
Let's examine a few story openings and see what it is they do so well:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortunate, must be in want of a wife.This is one of the most famous openings of a novel. What's so great about it? (It's much more fun to ask such questions when you're studying the craft of writing rather than trying to get an A on an English essay!)
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
- The tone: With its touch of humor, we get a distinct feeling that we will be smiling frequently throughout this story. That we'll be absorbing this story through a lens of one who is amused by the society they are showing to us.
- The focus: Miss Austen leaves no doubt as to what the focus of the book will be: marriage. Specifically the marriage of a man with a good fortune who moves into a new neighborhood. The story is in the first line.
- The perspective: This opening line works because the story is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This enables Miss Austen to give us a broad, sweeping view of the set-up.
Let's look at another story with a very different tone:
Broken Wings by Shannon Dittemore
Broken Wings by Shannon Dittemore
Hell is loud.
Talons scratch at the stone floor and clack against the pillars circling the chamber as the great hall fills. Hisses and snarls sound all around, but the noise doesn't unsettle the Cherub.
She's been here before.
Why does this story opening work so well?
- The tone: Shannon uses smart word choices to hint at the tone. Words like "hisses" and "snarls" and "clack." This is a dark place, and she paints that for us with her words. There's darkness in this story, but she also makes it clear that the character who's relaying this to us is not normally here with that punch of an opener, "Hell is loud."
- The focus: Shannon's series is a book about angels, about a spiritual battle between heaven and hell. You could guess that from this opening even if you hadn't read the back cover copy.
- The perspective: Same as Pride and Prejudice, we're not opening with the focus on our main character, but Shannon shows the scene through one set of eyes. Therefor we know we're seeing this from the perspective of one character rather than an omniscient narrator.
Let's take a look at a story that does this in first person, with the main character:
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
The name of the song is "This Lullaby." At this point, I've probably heard it, oh, about a million times. Approximately.Why is Sarah Dessen's opening so great?
All my life I've been told how my father wrote it the day I was born. He was on the road somewhere in Texas, already split from my mom. The story goes that he got word of my birth, sat down with his guitar, and just came up with it, right there in a room at a Motel 6.
- The tone: We know almost immediately that we're in the head of a jaded main character. Not dark and brooding, though. Her voice is sarcastic and playful enough that we don't get weighed down by her baggage. Rather, like her, we can almost laugh at it. Which is what the main character is doing as she recounts the story she's been told—the story that she clearly doesn't quite buy into—about her father and the song.
- The focus: While the story isn't about the song in the same sense that Miss Austen's book is about marriage or Shannon's book is about angels, the song is used as a representation throughout the story of why our main character struggles to be close to anybody. Knowing the way she feels about the song unlocks for us the struggle she feels in relationship with others.
- The perspective: We are in Remy's sarcastic head from beginning to end, and that's clear from the moment we start.
Pull out your manuscript and take a look. How have you done with your tone, your focus, and your POV? Do you feel like you're doing a good job of accurately portraying the mood of your story? Feel free to share your story opening below!