I had an urgent problem, and it didn’t help that my own freaking expectations were so high.
My mind was circling around the issue. There had to be a witty way to do it; I was desperate for a sudden flash of inspiration.
I was looking for the ultimate, the greatest opener ever – for my post about story openers.
Oh, what a cutesy beginning that was… writing it felt a bit like taking apart a Russian doll. I’m tempted to go on forever – but enough! Let’s actually talk about how to start a novel.
In this post, you can read about:
- Which elements are indispensable for your story openers
- Why you should feel free to throw most of the rules for openers out the window
- 31 story openers, taken from famous novels
- A short explanation for each one and why it works
- An easy trick for how to start your novel (in case you are new to writing)
- An opener list for writers with more experience
- A lot of inspiration to compose your own openers
And if you need a practical sheet to fall back on, then download my…
Story Openers Examples PDF
This free PDF is a summary of the post, including all of its opener examples. Download it, print it, and quickly go through it next time you need inspiration and guidance for an opener.
Now let’s take a look at the most important parts of that perfect opening.
How to Start a Novel
Hopefully the sentence I started this post with caught your attention. If it did, that’s because it’s interesting, it’s drama. People love to read about drama.
Let’s dissect it. Why does it seem interesting?
It’s because it makes you ask yourself a couple of questions, and therefore piques your curiosity: What’s that problem? Why is it urgent? And what’s up with that girlfriend? Is she such a bitch, or are Alex’s nerves so fragile? Several tiny questions add up.
I actually wrote an entire post about how you can create plot by establishing questions (it was the first post ever published on this blog). Check it out if you need guidance for your story line.
Now what’s the perfect opening?
If you expected me to tell you “Follow formula X, and you will have the perfect beginning,” or “Obey rule YZ, and your opener will be holy forever,” then you will be disappointed.
Honestly, that would be a big pile of BS. And “BS” stands for “Bad Speak,” of course, as I’m always very clean and tidy on this blog (but don’t look into my apartment).
There are NO rules you have to follow in order to feel like a proper author (and in order for me to feel like a proper writing coach)!
After all, it’s YOUR story, and you can start it however the heck you want. More so, YOU know best how to start it, because this story comes out of YOU.
So forget all the rules overbearing writing manuals would love to impose on you. You only have to keep one overarching rule in mind for your opener:
It has to be interesting.
To make your beginning interesting, you have a lot of different options. You will find a long list of examples below. A few of them even break this one rule, and the stories are still great.
If you are a beginner, you might want to stick to a beginning that leaves open questions and provokes curiosity. Scroll down for examples in the beginners section.
If you are more experienced, you can also start out with setting a tone of voice and mood. Scroll down to the advanced section for yummy examples.
And for starters (pun intended), I will even give you a formula. It’s not a rule you HAVE to follow, but something to keep in mind if you are not sure what to do:
Write the first sentence so the reader desperately wants to read the second one.
That’s not my quote, unfortunately. It’s by William Faulkner, and it brings us back to luring them in: You write your first sentence to make readers curious about the second one.
You write the second sentence to make them curious about the third one.
The first paragraph to make them curious about the second paragraph.
The first chapter to make them curious about the second chapter.
And so on. I’m sure by now you can imagine how this series continues. Just picture yourself as a fisherman, slowly pulling in the fishing line with your catch hooked. You are stringing the reader along in the best of all ways. You will also have a golden thread for yourself that can guide you along.
But now, I hear some of you asking: What should I write that first sentence about, Alex?”
The answer is: Look inside of you; because that’s where your story lives. You will soon realize what type of scene, what type of feeling, what type of language your story needs. Should the beginning be on point? Or provoking? Should it show attitude? Make us feel light or somber? Should it introduce an intriguing character, place or idea?
Let’s look at all the creative beginnings great authors came up with.
How to Start a Novel: First Sentences
The following examples were taken from successful novels. I hope their variety will inspire you and kickstart your imagination to find your perfect opener! Here are some notable approaches.
Straight to the Point and Mildly Interesting :
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
This opener tells it as it is, straight to the point. An action is happening, the event is painful for the character and exciting for the reader. This is a plain and simple opener that prompts the question “What will happen next?”
Aphorism, Sounding Smart and Connected to Theme:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoi
This beginning is a sound bite, an intelligent quick mouthful that could stand for itself as well. Nevertheless, you should connect its message to the core theme of your story. That way, it will make more sense, keep everything compact, and won’t be flapping in the wind like a loose, arbitrary beginning.
Gotham City. Maybe it’s all I deserve, now. Maybe it’s just my time in Hell.
Batman: Year One, Frank Miller
A highly concentrated dose of demeanor. Not only do we get curious about the hellish events and what all of this means, but also about the guy himself: Why does he talk like that? Is he some John Wayne type; evil; or just plain crazy? What makes the world he is living in so dark?
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre” and, in a shield, the World State’s Motto: “Community, Identity, Stability”.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
This opener makes us feel uncomfortable, like something is very off in its world. It doesn’t disturb in a plain in-your-face way though. No, on the surface, all the author describes are calmness, order and stability. He uses the foil, and not the sledge hammer. So tell me, reader, where does that creepy feeling come from…?
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
Plain shocking is easy to do and always very effective. You just need some extreme event you can give away at the beginning of your story. Start your tale with a bang! Drama and reader interest will follow.
Shocking, yet Funny/Controversial:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess
One of my personal favorites ever, and it’s the beginning of a great novel too. Observe how many small, whimsical provocations this sentence mentions in passing. The result, depending on how you see it, is funny or shocking. The first person POV adds to the effect. All of these elements play their part later on in the novel; they are not just shallow effects.
Getting You Hooked by Throwing a Mini-Story at You Right Away:
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
Throw your own mini-cosmos at the reader before she can even get to the first full stop and take a breath. She will want to know more. All of the elements in this example are well balanced. If you try this at home, make sure your text stays perfectly readable. For instance, resist parentheticals and complicated structures; the example sentence is very long, but still easy to understand.
Unrolling the Bird’s Eye View:
The Galactic Empire was dying.
Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
Short and sweet, as a starting point for your reader to explore. But what the heck is the Galactic Empire? And why is it dying? Did it write a will? We should read on to learn.
Foreshadowing in Letter Style:
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Annoying to read, but you could argue “Blame the writer of the letter, and not the writer of the book…” Why the official tone? And what’s evil? Inquiring minds want to know (especially the ones that saw a hulk of a monster with a frightening blank stare on the cover).
Foreshadowing in Dramatic Situation:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
We are not sure why the execution is happening, but we know violence is casting a dark shadow over fond childhood memories. The opener oscillates between the Colonel’s past, present and future; the tensions between all those times and feelings make for a story opener loaded with emotions; and all of this in only 26 words.
Characters and Language:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
This character description lets us wonder why they are so normal, and why that needs to be emphasized. But it’s really the Thank you very much that adds a special tone and makes things interesting. It’s the characters’ voice chiming in, and that voice judges in a way that comes from feeling superior. That makes for a very unusual opening. It’s an example of how details matter, and even more so in your opening line. It pays off to think about yours for a while.
Characters and Character History:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Another beginning that lives off the story’s characters. We want to know about this character that is so well off, about his family’s attitude, and the little scene the author just painted in our minds. The wealthy are of special interest. If you can open with a glimpse into a particular group of people, be it drug dealers or circus artists or a kindergarten kids, and make it authentic, that can be a great opener.
Simple (If You Must):
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Plain and simple – yes, that’s possible too. But think twice if you really want to go that route, and remember, this was written 170 years ago. Entertainment could afford to be a lot slower back then, as TV and YouTube were no competition.
Another Simple One:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
An ordinary beginning for a non-ordinary novel. That kind of contrast can sometimes be interesting.
Too Boring for My Taste (But Just to Show You That Anything is Possible, If You Have an Interesting Story to Tell):
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hill-side bank and runs deep and green.
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
Describing a landscape is the absolute pinnacle of boredom. I can’t recommend it. But hey, you are the boss…
Very Plain, yet Intriguing:
I am the vampire Lestat.
The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice
Super simple, but interesting. You can open like this, if you have a vampire in your story. Or some highly unusual place. Or event. Whoever read the title on the cover was already informed though. They knew the story was about none other than the vampire Lestat.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
Murphy, Samuel Beckett
Laconic. And of course completely nihilistic, like Beckett always is. Grips us with a thought and an image.
Oh, Look, Terry Pratchett Tries the Same in His Own Style:
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
The Light Fantastic, Terry Pratchett
He also comes after us with the sun, but his take is a cheeky one. It grabs us with wit. Make the style and attitude of your opener fit well with the rest of your novel. Make it a unit and tell the reader what to expect next.
You just read 18 story openers that work wonderfully. Pick the ones you like best and let them inspire you. Have fun!
But what if you want to keep it very simple, and use an effective and bullet-proof opener you don’t have to think about too much? Well, the next section is for you. You should try this especially if you are new to writing.
How to Start Writing a Novel for Beginners (Using the “W” questions)
Your readers’ attention is easy to catch if you can get them curious. Let them wonder! Throw them a tidbit of information, but don’t completely give away who, what, why, where or how.
Yes, those “W” question words are your helpers. And I’m not talking about worried, whining, weary, willful, wrong or wreck. Pick one or several of the real “W” words and make the reader wonder (that’s another magical W-word).
So if you don’t feel like using the openers above, or you just started out writing, use one of these – all of them are based on evoking curiosity:
Who is She? What Is It About This Woman?:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Is she or is she not a heroine? The sentence is ambiguous and leaves us wondering who Catherine is and what she looks like.
Who is He?, Dark Edition:
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the doom and gloom version of the Who is he? question. Doom and gloom is emphasized by the first person point of view. You could also make your character very funny. Or dumb. Or imaginative. Your characters can be super helpful to draw your reader into the story, so use them!
Why is He Doing That? And Why This Reaction?:
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
This sentence includes several riddles as to how these people behave. The scene looks absurd; or is there some sound reason behind it? Original and dramatic. Let the reader discover.
Where Is He? What Happened?:
The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams
Well, where is this guy? At breakfast with his mother-in-law? Places not fully explained make the reader long for your next sentence as well.
What’s the Truth?:
As I left the railway station at Worchester and set out on the three-mile walk to Ransom’s cottage, I reflected that no one on that platform could possibly guess the truth about the man I was going to visit.
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
This one is spelling it out in bold letters: THERE IS A SECRET! DISCOVER IT ALREADY, YOU READER YOU! Fair enough, author. It’s effective.
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
That’s a great opening to me, because it evokes so many questions in bypassing; all while showing a lot of action and a mini-scene within a single sentence. Questions: Why is he pushing a gun into his mouth? Why the hell did he get him a job as a waiter in the first place then? Who is Tyler? What’s their relationship? And what is going to happen?
Another Smart One That Makes Us Wonder:
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
Hmmm… what does this mean? It draws us to the second sentence almost magnetically. Sex sells, you know… sex and puppies. Don’t forget to put sex or puppies into your first sentence, always!
And for the ones amongst you who want to go much further than to just tickle curiosity – here is another list:
How to Start a Novel, Advanced Version: Setting the Tone
A great way to intrigue your reader is by setting the mood and tone of your novel.
Think about it: We humans are very emotional creatures. We follow where our emotions lead us. It’s well known in advertising: Don’t appeal to the rational mind by talking about the logical advantages of your product; instead, appeal to emotions! “Just do it, “I’m loving it” or “It gives you wings” are not precisely watertight arguments.
The best way to get under your readers’ skin is to create an emotion for them right away. Set the mood for your novel with your first sentence, and throw them into your story like into a cold pool. They won’t forget.
Your cell phone, overflowing with emotions
Hitting that emotional chord is a bit more challenging than evoking curiosity. But if you already have some writing experience under your belt, or if you just feel like it, then try it. A well-developed sense for language will help. For us writers, mood consists of language.
Now let’s see what we have:
Fairy Tale Style:
The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
This one establishes fairy tale ambience right away. By reading the opener, you know you will get something fantastic. You are probably not reading an action piece about New York stockbrokers. The story will allow you to feel good within the defined limits of a fantastic tale; the sentence sounds plain and cutesy and gives it away.
Making it Sexy by Using Language and Association:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Life, fire, sin, soul, tongue… the words allude as much to the topic as the rhythm and the obsession about the girl’s name. We can feel something is in the air. This beginning is purely language-driven. A great opener, and one of my favorites.
Dreamy, Glooming Introduction:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Plain, but effective. We can feel that something somber is overshadowing this beginning. Dreams lend your narration special weight. Also, you can describe anything, no matter how crazy or unrealistic, if it happens in a dream. That little trick gives you a lot of options.
The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams
If you have a funny idea for an opener and if your story has some funny or ironic undertone, then go for that type of opening. A chuckle from the reader guarantees he will read on. But if your story has no fun elements to it, then don’t do this. It would set very wrong expectations.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
Another fun example. Mean and smart-ass style, and it’s making the author’s voice very hearable.
‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Our last example sets an epic tone, fitting for the novel. Whatever feeling your novel conveys is what you want to start off with. Set the stage in an appropriate way!
That’s the long list of our openers; hopefully you have enough ammunition for your next 213 novels. And if you want to keep all of these beginnings on neat sheets, download the…
Good Story Openers PDF
Get this free PDF with all of these openers. Pull out the sheets before you write your own opener and get inspired to find your perfect opener:
And of course I also have for you some…
Story Openers Writing Prompts
This time, I want you to write a quick story opening exercise in the comments below. It won’t cost you much time, I promise.
Choose one of the following four story fragments and write a beginning for it. It could be only the first sentence, or the entire first paragraph, or an even longer passage. Feel free to invent as many details as you want!
- A farmer builds a trap for a fox that has been attacking his hens. He finally catches the animal (you can also write from the fox´s POV).
- Lana wants to impress her boss with her latest audit report, but spills coffee all over the papers two minutes before the meeting.
- Knights festival at a castle. The king’s daughter (princess alarm!) tries to convince her father to give the victory to Sir Lancelot, whom she has fallen in love with.
- Take any of your own stories or a story you make up on the spot.
I’m looking forward to seeing your openings below in the comments. Don’t be shy! You can also find a lot more writing prompts on the writing prompts page. Find one you like, and practice writing a nice opener.
The End to the Beginning
They say the first sentence is the most important one of your entire story. If you can’t hook your readers with your first sentence, they won’t read on. Luckily, a great first sentence is not that hard to write.
Employ the strategies you saw in this post. Give yourself time. Writing an effective opener will become easier and easier the more you practice it. You will develop an infallible sense for what works and what doesn’t. You are the master of your story, and I guarantee you, that grand opener for your story is slumbering somewhere inside of you…. Wake it up!
Once you find it, your reader will be irresistibly hooked from phrase one. After that, writing your entire story becomes so much easier, because you are on the right track. And before you know it, you will have an awesome story in your hands!
Image Credits: Laptop Rocket: sdecoret/Fotolia; Winking guy: vectorpocket/Fotolia; Emoticons: koya979/Fotolia