Writing Discussion

6 Ways to Begin a Novel

Some people say “start where the action starts”. Most people say “hook the reader”. But what is a narrative hook? What makes people keep reading? I raided my bookshelf and found a six different examples of novel beginnings:

1) Start with a character

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

~ American Gods by Neil Gaiman

2) Start in the middle of something

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.

~ The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

3) Start with a question

Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history’s botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species—and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.

Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.

The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. “Ao gee kilo kha?” How much?

“Are they safe?” he asks.

~ The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

4) Tell a story

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

-*-

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

~ The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

5) Start with atmosphere

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

“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.

~ Neuromancer by William Gibson

6) Describe a normal day, but hint something’s off

An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT.

Inside, a man walked through the big hall, past a double stair and a giant skeleton, his steps loud on the marble. Stone animals watched him. ‘Right then,’ he kept saying.

~ Kraken by China Mieville

Some common elements of these beginnings: they’re loaded with micro-tension, and they raise questions. The questions are: who is this, where is this, what’s going to happen, or what already happened?

Maybe a hook = question + tension. What makes it a hook is that the reader needs to turn the page to answer the question and relieve the tension? That’s my current theory.

Do you have any favorite novel beginnings you could share?

18 Comments

  1. “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and go…” or something to that effect. It has a promise of mythology… which can be a powerful promise. The danger of this one, I know, is that it won’t work for everyone. But it worked for me.

    I think you’ve pretty much worked it out fairly well, here. These are all pretty fabulous openings. And they do all start planting seeds of questions. But they also are good introductions… whether to world or character, we feel like this is something new, and interesting. And I agree there’s a hint of tension.

    1. Ahh here we go:

      “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long pass, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

      I think I’d consider this ‘tell a story’. It makes me want to sit around a fire beneath the dark sky and listen to someone speak. A very good beginning, and difficult to pull off well.

  2. Not gonna lie, I’m too lazy to look up a bunch of beginnings, but I will say that I liked your categories and examples.

    For me, the biggest “hooks” are either back cover copy, or personal recommendations. I don’t tend to judge on first lines (unless I think they’re AWFUL) because *I* don’t need every story to start with a bang. I give most books about 30 pages.

    I like Stephen’s example too. 🙂

    1. 30 pages? I will almost always finish any book I’ve borrowed or bought even if I hate it. LOL

      I’m thinking about this from the writing perspective actually. The writer has little or no control over back cover copy and recommendations. On the other hand, if you’re trying to sell a book, agents and editors are busy, and I doubt they’re not going to read much past the beginning if it doesn’t grip right away somehow.

      1. I used to be in the camp of always finishing a book (except for one author whose philosophy I discovered I didn’t like and who also had a problem with continuity). However, now that I read 75+% ebooks, I find I grab the samples whenever something intrigues me. Eventually, I read the sample, and if I’m still intrigued I queue it toread. Since, I’ve got more samples than time to read, I’m not reading all books and the sample needs to hook me.

  3. That’s a very helpful post, Tessa. I think I love stories which begin with the “Tell a story” category. Yeah, I love them the most. They just sweep you in and keep you reading forever!

    -BrownEyed

  4. This was a timely post for me since I have a “finished” book sitting here with a beginning that I’m not in love with. Hmmm…this has given me some ideas. Thank you!

  5. One of my all-time favorite novel openings is from Stephen Fry’s Hippopotamus. The narrator rambles for a good chapter, complaining about theatre, culture, sex, fashion, city life – idly dropping some details like that he was recently fired, but with no real goal evident beyond venting. Fry nails the tone so well that even at my grumpiest this guy cracks me up. He actually won me over on a bad day when any other book would have had me critiquing it to shreds. Very difficult to open a novel like that, with so little germane and no hook beyond the persona. I guess Avarind Adiga’s White Tiger does that to an extent, but it also turned away droves of bored readers who will never understand what the Man Booker committee wants.

    1. Yes you’re right, that would be difficult to do, but goes to show that really anything can work in the hands of someone skilled. I’ll have to look for the book at the library 🙂 You’ve got me curious.

  6. Yes, you’re absolutely right! I think the important thing to take away from this is that you need to be SUBTLE. You should HOLD BACK more than you think.

    Many beginning writers feel like they need to tell us EVERYTHING about the character or setting. But you should only give us little hints and clues, until the novel becomes this intriguing mystery you are trying to solve. That’s what makes reading fun!

    Thanks for reminding me. I needed to remember it.

    1. Indeed, it’s the mysteries that drive us forwards. I think that’s why “Lost” was so successful. Even when one mystery was answered, there were always more to puzzle over. You’re welcome!

  7. One interesting aspect of hooks/openings, particularly in SF/Fantasy, is properly balancing the world with things that relate to the reader. I enjoyed Paolo’s “The Windup Girl”, but I read that in hardcover and am not sure I would have finished it had it been an ebook sample because of the strangeness of the world (bizarre foods, language, fantastic non-fossil fuel future). I recently read a sample that I couldn’t get into and I wonder whether I’m missing beautiful works like “The Windup Girl” as a result.

    Note: this of course fits in well with Ollin’s comment because if you hold back information, you have a tendency of delaying the bizarre world and providing it at a rate that people like me can understand (yes, amazing this comes from someone who loves making up strange and unusual worlds.)

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Yes it is a bit funny coming from you, knowing the kinds of things you write about.

      The degree of what can overwhelm a reader is different. The beginning of the Windup Girl didn’t make me pause since I’ve been to Asia. I also knew straight away what fruit Anderson was eating and what it tasted like. I was hooked because I was wondering how a common (in Asia) tropical fruit could be forgotten.

      I suppose we can always miss good stories. I wonder how many more I’d pass up if I was e-reading.

      1. Lately, I’m finding myself dissatisfied with the ebook sampling model of testing books. Of course, I’m not as voracious as I was in High School… when a good jacket blurb was enough to get me to bring the book home from the library and the time investment wasn’t that large.

        I’m still hunting for the way to describe the books that work for me and samples only tell me whether I like the author’s voice and a little about the craft. Yet, this doesn’t tell me anything about how well they handle plot or whether they can elicit chills from their writing. I’m interested in a better way of “discovering” books, but since people’s tastes differ so much I’m not sure there is a way to do it.

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