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Writing Beginnings: The First Chapter of Your Novel

Kate Swanson wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites ever since.

A good beginning will keep your reader reading to the end

A good beginning will keep your reader reading to the end

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again." That's one of the most famous first sentences in the world, from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and it's a good illustration of the power of a good opening.

Your opening paragraph is the most important in the whole book—it's what draws your reader into the story. People often think that means it must be exciting, or shocking, action-packed or dramatic. Wrong! The job of an opening sentence is to leave the reader intrigued, curious to know more, like that wistful first sentence from Rebecca.

Openings That Ask a Question

Here are some more opening lines to illustrate my point:

"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". - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." - Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

All of these opening lines make you wonder. Why is Buendía facing a firing squad? Why did the phone ring and what was the "it" it started? Why were the clocks striking thirteen?

Of course, there are successful novels with opening lines that don't raise questions, but they're successful in spite of, not because of, their beginning. And their authors weren't having to market their own work - if you're self-publishing, you need to use all the weapons you can muster to catch your readers!

Anyway, there's more to it than just one sentence. It can be quite easy to come up with an intriguing first sentence, but if you satisfy the reader's curiosity too early, they'll put the book down again. You want to draw them further into the story, beyond page 2, so they have to buy the book to find out the rest.

If you can't find a way to create that curiosity over your first few pages, chances are you've started your story in the wrong place.

Cut the Backstory

A common mistake for newbie writers is to use their first chapter to set up the story. Wrong! To keep your reader interested, you need to throw them into the story from page one. If you start giving them a lot of background for a story they don't know yet, they'll lose interest.

There are plenty of techniques to fill the reader in on the background as you go along, so don't risk losing them before you even start! This is such a big topic I've created a separate article on backstory.

When a Prologue Works

In many books and courses about writing, you'll be told you should never use a prologue. I've only recently understood why that is, and I'm grateful to publisher Carina Press for starting this informative debate on their blog. It's worth reading both the post and the comments, but in a nutshell, it's common for readers to skip the prologue and go straight to Chapter 1. This came as a surprise to me, but it seems the habit is the result of too many writers using prologues for the wrong reasons. Readers have learned that prologues are often a way for a writer to dump a heap of backstory, which they don't want to wade through - they want to get straight to the action. That's a problem, because used properly, a prologue can be a great way to start a book.

A prologue picks a pivotal scene from either your backstory or your main story, and tells it in isolation. By its very nature, that means it should be an exciting scene that grabs your reader. If it's a scene from the past, then you're telling it because it lets the reader in on a secret that informs the action through the rest of the novel. If it's a scene from the future, you're telling it because you want the reader to think, "wow, how is that going to come about?" In both cases, you're using your prologue to create the "hook" that draws your reader in and makes them want to read your story.

Of course, that becomes a huge problem if readers are going to skip it. If you've created your "hook" in the prologue, you probably won't be able to offer another one in chapter one.

How Prologues Should Work

This example of how prologues should work is from my upcoming novel. In the first chapter, the heroine gets involved with Yuri, a smooth charmer who's really a Russian mafioso. The chapter is written from the heroine's point of view. As you'll know if you've read my article on Point of View, that means I can't reveal anything she doesn't know herself - so I have no way to let the reader know the man's true nature. The chapter reads like a romantic encounter - nothing there to pique the reader's interest.

I've tried starting the novel later in the story, but it creates all kinds of problems which I can't resolve. Instead, I decided to add a prologue, showing Yuri's true nature being revealed in a violent act later in the story. When the reader gets to chapter one, they know Yuri isn't the wealthy businessman he appears and they wonder if the heroine will get burnt.

Then I discovered that many readers don't read prologues, and that meant I couldn't count on readers knowing about Yuri! But I couldn't find a way to insert warning signs in chapter one without making my heroine look stupid for not noticing them.

My eventual solution was to write a different prologue, this time showing the two brothers six months before the story begins. Ad even though it was really a prologue because it was such a long time before chapter one, I made another very simple change: I labelled my prologue as chapter one, so the old chapter one became chapter two, and so on. After all, there's no rule that chapters have to follow closely in time, one after the other.

The main thing to remember is that your opening lines can make or break your novel, so it's worth investing the time to make them the best they can be!

Comments

Alan Ford on August 12, 2014:

Thank You! for sharing these helpful insights.

Ceres Schwarz on April 13, 2013:

Interesting hub. I do agree that you really need a very interesting beginning to hook your readers and get them to continue reading your story. If they're bored, they'll just end up leaving. I think it's also necessary that readers don't get confused with what they're reading.

Su M. Mary on March 30, 2013:

Very true about the prologues. They are inherently boring (at least to me. Get to the story, already!!), and I skip them when I can help it. I prefer to gather the backstory as I read, rather than having to remember whatever I was told at the beginning of the book. I read the prologue to the Pern novels once, promptly forgot it, and never cared because the story wasn't much affected without it.

bdom7711 on June 07, 2012:

That dagum first line...it's the only part of my book I haven't wrote yet! Great article, hoping to find the perfect 'hook' soon.

bloggernotjogger from La Cala de Mijas, Spain on January 11, 2012:

I´m so glad to have come across this hub. It is exactly the kind of info I need. I will be reading a lot more of your hubs.

Bbudoyono on September 21, 2011:

I am writing my first novel. This hub is very informative. Thanks a lot.

FemPen from Florida on September 08, 2011:

You are correct about the backstory. New writers overdo it and end up never getting published because of needless words and lack of gall to take advice. My first edit was a nightmare but you learn from it, and can grow into a wonderful novelist.

Mind Unsettled from In My Head on August 25, 2011:

Great information. I now have to go check all my openings :)

Serwya on August 20, 2011:

Thank you very much. Finished my first novel. Upon re reading, the beginning is dry compared to the phenomenal story event. Thank you. I now hear a great opening voice in my head.

Jessica on August 09, 2011:

This has been so helpful. I'm currently writing a novel and come across this. It's took me a while but I've finally come up with a more captivating first sentence in my book. Thank you for the tips!

RichardCMckeown on July 04, 2011:

oh! I think the most difficult part to do is to write beginnings. Thanks for sharing tips..

Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 09, 2011:

@Abelle, I like the opening line because it lets me know you have wings. However, it could be worded a whole lot better. Think more about how your wings feel and describe that in more detail.

Abelle on April 08, 2011:

I LOVE writing, and this was just what I was looking for. I'm almost 12, and I've written a novel that is currently a mess. How does this sound as an opening line: "I swoop down with my wings, the pressure of air beating my face lovingly, as if a protection for me". I'm not sure I just want an expert's opinion. Another GREATTT opening line is "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." loooove Pride and Prejudice :)

Susan Ann on January 11, 2011:

Good information.. bravo and rated up!

Annabelle on December 12, 2010:

Thx for this!! :D I'm a preteen, and I LOVE to write stories. When I'm older I want to be a writer and a ballerina, so I really enjoy reading about both of those things!!

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on October 28, 2010:

Very helpful. I voted it up. Thanks!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 11, 2010:

I thought that this hub is so useful and informative that I am giving it a useful plus bookmarking it in my most useful hubs.I have only just come across you on here and I am looking forward to reading more of your work. Thank you so much for sharing and take care Marisa.

Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 24, 2010:

Adele, I think you're asking the wrong question. Remember the opening few pages of your book are what engages the reader. That's the case even if it is a sequel. So ask yourself, is a chapter/prologue relating the character's feelings going to get a reader interested enough to read the rest of the book?

One other point - if you ever want to get published, the first book of your fantasy series must be complete in itself. If it ends in a cliff-hanger, or leaves too much unfinished, no publisher will ever touch it.

Adele on September 24, 2010:

I have just finished writing my fantasy novel, and I have just started the sequel to it. I am not sure if the starting chapter of my sequel is chapter 1 or a prologue. At the end of my first book a main character dies, but in the past sentence, she comes back alive (by magical means( The first chapter/prolouge of the sequel is from her point of view about how she felt was dying etc. And also how and why she came back alive.

Is that a prolouge or chapter 1? Can there even be a proloug in sequels?

Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 07, 2010:

Jenny, it sounds like your using your prologue the right way.

When you get to that point in the main narrative, you will need to repeat the same scene. Bear in mind that not all readers will clearly remember the prologue! How you repeat it is up to you.

Personally, I think repeating the same first paragraph is a good idea. For readers who DO remember the prologue, it will give them a moment of recognition. However, you don't want to bore your readers, so I would then tell the rest of the scene in different words.

Jenny on September 06, 2010:

I am a new writer and am rapidly realizing how much I love it. I am a bit green, however, when it comes certain structure issues. My question is this....

I'm using a prologue. (I know that many writers are completely against these. I'm not using it as back story, mine is a glimpse of suspense to come.)

My prologue is more of a snippet, if you will, of something that will eventually happen to my protagonist much later in the book. When I eventually get to that point in my story, I'm not entirely sure how to tie it back in. Will I reiterate the same scene I used in the prologue, or skip to the ending of the prologue, and take up where I left off? I am a bit confused as to how that works. It would be much more cut and dry if my prologue were something that happened before chapter 1, but I love to suck the reader in by promising really great conflict to come. As I said, I am a very green and welcome advice and constructive criticism. Thanks so much to anyone who has a minute to help!

-Capone- on September 06, 2010:

Awesome! This really helped me. I'm writing a historical fiction novel.

Fantasy Writer on August 14, 2010:

In response to William F. Torpey:

First of all, writing fiction is very rewarding (not just in cash) and you should at least try it out if you have an interest. Secondly, I completely agree that if an introduction or prologue is too lengthy or detailing an inherently boring scene, it is all too easy to skip. I once heard (I don't remember who from) that a classic novel is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. For some classics, I think I must agree.

susan beck from drexel hill,pa on July 16, 2010:

Excellent advice and well-written. I wish you much success with your novel.

ACSutliff on July 16, 2010:

I totally agree with you on the first chapter. My husband read my book and told me he wanted to know more about my characters and thought I should have a prologue to show what happened to them in the past, and that's how I knew I was doing something right.

I'll be coming back to read the next one!

mikicagle from Oklahoma on May 13, 2010:

Awesome hub. I learned a lot. Thanks for writing this hub in such a clear and concise manner

Leptirela from I don't know half the time on May 10, 2010:

Powerful- Informative and easy to understand...straight to the point I love this hub which is why il keep coming back to it..thank you for sharing :)

Hmm.....Abe Normal?! WHO?

phoenixgbr on May 06, 2010:

Great stuff thanks - and the New York Trilogy is my fav work.

lisa brazeau from Canada on April 01, 2010:

Wonderful!Thank you.

Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on March 11, 2010:

You've never read Rebecca? I've heard the expression "The Hook" used more often to refer to what you do at the end of a chapter, to make sure the reader continues to the next one. But you're right, you're trying to hook the reader in.

Abe Normal from Gigantic Ocean Seaboard on March 11, 2010:

Uh huh (Rebecca?) ... it's called "The Hook," and notably, there's one in "Huckleberry Finn" as Twain starts the novel ... "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter." Rebecca? What the fu.?

Ugo A on March 04, 2010:

just wanna say thank you so much for this information, i want to be a writer but dont know how to start, much thanks to hubpages.com and Marisa Wrights

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 16, 2010:

I've never seriously considered writing fiction, Marisa, but your advice here is clearly excellent. I'll always remember nearly making a critical mistake when I came close to putting aside Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" because the lengthy opening chapter detailed the funeral of King Edward so laboriously. I'm sure glad I decided to finish the book, which turned out to be my favorite. If a reader puts the book down because of a poorly written opening, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the book is written.

ChristyJC from Texas on February 03, 2010:

Great hub! Gives us newbies some foundation to build on! Thanks! :D

Springboard from Wisconsin on February 03, 2010:

First lines are certainly what suck you in. You read them and you kind of say to yourself, "this is going to be one hell of a ride."

The first line in one of my favorite books, "Ghost Story" by Peter Straub, IMO is one of the best opening lines I've ever read—not to discount the ones you've illustrated here, of course.

"What's the worst thing you've ever done?"

That was it. If you put the book down after reading that line, if you were able to, it'd be a good time to go and see a doctor and make sure the heart was still pumping.

Nice hub, and very informative. I'll be back.

hubpageswriter on February 01, 2010:

Very well written, for sure. And the illustration is also very cool. Novel writing is not easy, but not too hard as well. You are right when you said to get readers hooked. I think that's the most important aspect of all.

Shelly McRae from Phoenix, Arizona on February 01, 2010:

Great hub, Marisa. Clean and comprehensible explanation of a difficult concept.

midnighteden from UK on January 30, 2010:

This is a really informative hub, especially the part about cutting down the backstory. I have found that when approaching fiction, it is tempting to try to include too much backstory straight away. The three different options of how the story about the great-grandfather could have started are very clear and great way of illustrating the point being made.

Thanks for the hub.

Andrew from Italy on January 30, 2010:

This is very interesting. I'm not ready yet for a novel but I'm thinking around a short story, and I'll use your informations and advices. Bookmarked and really appreciated.

PWalker281 on January 28, 2010:

Great hub! I tried fiction writing a time or two but just never got the hang of it (after years of technical writing). Maybe reading more of your hubs will encourage me to revisit it.

An example of my curiosity being satisfied too early was the first 4 episodes of the new TV drama "V." The original program aired in the early 80s and kept viewers guessing the identity and motives of the Visitors over several episodes. This new version revealed their identity at the end of the first episode. Huge disappointment for me! But I'll probably keep watching it when it comes back on.

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on January 28, 2010:

Very interesting - made us think of some of our favourite 1st lines.

Good luck with your novel.

Juliette Kando FI Chor from Andalusia on January 28, 2010:

Yes, that's definitely the key to get the beginning right, incite the reader's curiosity so they want to buy the book.

Merle Ann Johnson from NW in the land of the Free on January 27, 2010:

Wow this was great information...I may need to go change a few things In what I am working on... It is all so new to me, (writing a novel) but I now have 2 I am working....:O) Hugs G-Ma and Thanks

Hannah Price on January 27, 2010:

Thank you for this interesting and informative hub! I totally agree, several books have been off-putting for me because of lengthy prologues (Les Miserables, Ben-Hur, etc.).

This was very helpful for me!