Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Opening Pages
Everyone tells you that you have to hook the reader in the first few pages of your novel. Or is it paragraphs? Or maybe lines? Publishers and agents say that they know from the outset whether the book is going to be a good one. As someone who is in the process of submitting novel number one and writing the second one, I'm very conscious that the opening of each book has to be intriguing enough to make whoever is reading it want to read on and find out more. At the industry appointments at the RNA conference last year, agents and publishers asked for the first chapter and a synopsis of the novel prior to the appointments. The submission process varies with each publisher and agent. Sometimes it's the first three chapters, the first ten thousand words, first fifty pages but whenever the whole manuscript is asked for, you know that there was an interesting enough hook for the person to want to read the whole novel. And then you play the waiting game!

Stephen King reflected on the importance of a novel's introductory sentence. He said, 'An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say; Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.' Here are some famous opening lines:

  • 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'  Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell (1949)
  • 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'  Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (1813)
  • 'All children, except one, grow up.' Peter Pan - J. M. Barrie (1911)
  • 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' The Crow Road - Iain Banks (1992)
  • 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'  Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
  • 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)
  • 'My suffering left me sad and gloomy.' Life of Pi - Yann Martel (2001)
  • 'There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.' The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman (2008)
A short while ago, I read a post written by Nina Harrington on the 'Revising and Editing' blog where she reflected on why the first few chapters of a novel she was reading had failed to engage her. She stressed how important structure is. There needs to be conflict or an inciting incident which will make the reader want to read on, she said. She summed it up simply:

"No stakes and no conflict = no interest."

She then came up with a list of ten points that will help the writer build "a compelling opening scene and then a first chapter which will capture the attention of any reader." These include setting the context, selecting the PoV, goals, conflict, reactions - both emotional and physical, dilemmas, new decisions and new goals for the character. Each point is expanded upon and I recommend you click HERE  to read the full post. Nina's ten-step process could be used it as a checklist when editing opening chapters, perhaps.

What makes you want to want to engage with the characters straight away when you begin reading a book? What will stop you reading? How do you start writing the first chapter of a new novel? Do you write a prologue? I'd love to read your comments. Thank you for reading.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer FB page. 


  1. My favourite first line is from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." So much so, I refer to it in Snow Sisters.

    And although I must have read that Stephen King quote, it isn't the reason I used the word, "Listen" in Ghostbird's epigram! I genuinely was thinking, it's what I want my reader to do: Listen, I have a story to tell you... Most writers I'm sure go through several first lines. The ones we first think are right often get discarded, or we discover they sit better elsewhere. The Ghostbird epigram was, initially, the first line of Chapter One - I realised I needed to dive into the story, take my reader straight to Cadi's world & thoughts. In any case, I love epigrams!

    The opening of a story has to intrigue me - I want a sense of magic (or menace even - I like a good thriller), something quirky & not too complex. And setting is important - a snapshot.

    I'm not keen on prologues, either as a writer or a reader. I read them - obviously - it would be rude not to & they tend to inform what comes next. My feeling is though, if you can write a prologue, you can write a first chapter. If you need that blast from the past (prologues almost always refer to the past) make it enigmatic & brief? Lots of people do like them though & what do I know! I wrote one for my terrible self-published novel!

    Great post Jan, as ever, & I love your own choices. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favourite book. Crow Road, Rebecca & The Bell Jar also. xXx

    1. Thank you, Carol. Many of the books I've loved have had prologues but I understand why some people don't like them. I'm always intrigued to see where the situation in the prologue fits into the whole story. I'm ashamed to admit that I only read 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' a few years ago but I absolutely loved it. 🙂📚

  2. Such an important subject, Jan - how the story starts. We've all read, or started to read, books that don't grab us at the outset and so we give up on them. I blogged last autumn about 'Page 1 Magic' - that wonderful quality that tells you right away that you are going to love a book. Two of the examples I used were Carol Rivers' wartime saga 'East End Angel' and Kate Field's lovely 'The Magic of Ramblings', both of which captured me immediately and promised a wonderful, absorbing reading experience. There's nothing quite like that feeling of sinking into a book, knowing that you are going to love it.

    1. Thank you Sue! Although I don't think I deserve to be mentioned in the same blog as those brilliant first lines that Jan has picked out! x

    2. Lovely blog, Jan. Stunning quotes. Susanna was kind enough to use East End Angel as an example - like Kate, awesome to be mentioned in the same blog. Does anyone recall the late Nancy Smith? She was a fantastic creative writing teacher. She told me; 'Beginnings? Just make them gasp in the first paragraph.' I've tried and failed many times. But the ones that come off make the books. Thanks Susanna and Jan!

    3. Thanks for your thoughts, Sue. You're right it's a lovely feelin when you know immediately that you're going to enjoy the book. I've found the blog post you mention and read it. Thank you for recommending Kate and Carol's books. I've downloaded them both. 🙂📚

    4. Thank you, Carol. What a great comment from Nancy Smith! I shall have to copy that out and put it above my desk. Every time I try out a new beginning, I'll try to do that. Not easy at all, though. :-) Thank you for leaving a comment.

  3. An interesting post, Jan, and a timely one too as I'm preparing to start writing another book and mulling over where to start with the story. I hand write my books, but always write the first page on a scrap piece of paper, so I can try out a few different versions before copying the preferred one into my notebook. It makes me happy to have a neat first page, even if it goes downhill from there!

    1. Thank you for popping by, Kate. I'm so impressed that you hand write your books and can understand that you have to have a neat first page. I've just started reading 'Ramblings' and am loving it. Good luck with the new book. 🙂

  4. Thanks for another really interesting post, Jan. Nina's checklist of points to incorporate into the first chapter is excellent. It's pretty daunting too. As you say, it makes a great tool for revising, but if I thought about it too much at the first draft stage, I might never write another book!
    I love your list of favourite first lines. At 11 years old I was struck by Leon Garfield's 'Two devils lived in Mr Fast: envy and loneliness' from 'The Ghost Downstairs'. I'm not particularly impressed with the line as an adult, but I've never forgotten it. And I'm pretty certain that reading Garfield's creepy book convinced me I wanted to be a writer myself one day.
    Like Carol, I'm not a big fan of prologues, and I always read them quickly - and a bit resentfully - because I want to get on to the story 'proper'. I had to revise my view, though, when I read Karen Joy Fowler's prologue in her novel 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' - such a fantastic book all round. Her prologue ends with the lines 'Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.' Sounds like good advice!

    1. Thanks, Sara. Yes, a tall order and your comment about thinking too much being a hindrance rings true with me. With my first novel, I just wrote my story and didn't analyse it very much...until the editing stage. With novel two, I wonder if I'm trying too hard and that's what's slowing me up. I like the sound of the book you mentioned by Karen Joy Fowler so I'll look that one up.