Writing the start of a novel shouldn’t be done without completing the preliminaries. You should already have a theme, a plot, and a viewpoint. If you’re a planner, you’ve plenty of planning to do; but if you’re a pantser, you’re good to go. Either way, once you are ready to write, how should you begin your novel?
We need to digress for a moment to think about how readers choose which book to read. Think about your own thought process if you go into a bookshop to buy a book. Sometimes you may go in with a certain book title or book author in mind. Other times you see what book tempts you to buy it.
I love browsing bookshops, and I’ll visit almost every section. Even if I don’t intend to purchase a book of a particular genre, I’ll still look in that section of the store to have a look at book covers and first sentences.
Contrary to expectation, a book cover’s primary purpose is to illustrate the genre of the book, not its content. Often, you won’t be able to identify the scene depicted on the cover within the book itself. Unless they are searching for a particular named book or author, readers enter a bookshop looking for a genre. Once they’ve found the right genre, they pick the book up, read the blurb on the back cover, and then read the first couple of sentences in the book.
When writing the start of a novel, those first couple of sentences are crucial. They determine whether the potential purchaser buys the book or returns it to the shelf.
In May 2021 I went onto the Waterstones UK Website, filtered out the hardback and non-fiction books, then filtered the remaining fictional paperbacks into best-selling order and looked at the first two sentences of the first ten books in that list of best-sellers.
What stands out? The first two sentences in each of those books leaves you wanting to read more. There are rarely long descriptions of places or characters. When writing the start of a novel that becomes a best seller, authors have crafted those initial sentences to convey intrigue and action. They designed them to grab your attention and encourage you to read further.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting.
Why was one of the twins lost? What had everyone witness that was truly exciting?
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
Arent Hayes howled in pain as a rock slammed into his massive back. Another whistled by his ear; a third striking his knee, causing him to stumble, bringing jeers from the pitiless mob, who were already searching the ground for more missiles to throw.
Don’t you want to know what Arent Hayes has done to arouse such fury from the mob?
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs. The passage is narrow and twists back on itself.
Why is he coming down? You will only find out by reading more.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford. She stared at a chessboard on a low table.
Why did Nora Seed decide to die? This unusual phrase has me intrigued.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering down below.
Another intriguing phrase. How does someone’s mind abandon a body?
The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.
Who is this unthinking person who can see a queen beheaded and only worry about breakfast?
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.
Who was this person’s father, this king who was the son of a king? Another phrase to whet the appetite.
The Dinner Guest by B P Walter
My husband Matthew died on an unseasonable chilly August day at dinner time. We had been together for just over ten years, married for five, and yes, we did love each other.
The last phrase seems odd. Is she implying she killed him? I’m intrigued.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon.
Where is this?
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Tragedy struck office workers and Christmas shoppers on the evening of 4 December when two trains collided in thick fog under the Nunhead flyover. The 5.18 from Charing Cross to Hayes and the 4.56 steam train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate had been delayed by the poor weather.
How did the trains collide, and was there anyone important on them?
Authors can learn a lot from the above ten examples of writing the start of a novel. What you have done as you read the above sentences is what I do every time I go to a bookshop. I read the opening sentences. If I’m not grabbed, interested or intrigued, then I put the book down. If I have an overwhelming desire to know what happened next, I buy the book. The above books are best sellers for a reason, and the reason starts with the beginning of each book. Each of them leaves the reader asking a question that can only be answered if they read more.