Writing Your Novel’s Opening

Just chillin.

Whether you’re writing your first or your fiftieth novel,
you will most likely need to revise your opening pages last. It’s a tall order
for most of us—after all, we understand the importance of first impressions.
Readers will usually only give a story a page or two (sometimes only a sentence
or two!) to decide if the rest is worth their time. So of course, we want to
get it right.

Writing Tip for Today:  Here are some hints for revising your novel’s opening:

First Mental Image

Too many writers open their stories with a character who isn’t doing much. Whether your protagonist is “driving to the story,” sitting around or in back story (gasp!), remembering some earlier time, make sure readers get a true mental image of both your character and the setting.

By true mental image, I mean that if your protagonist is
going to be a feisty woman bucking social mores, don’t show her meekly sitting
around, being submissive. Some writers say, “But my character is going to grow
into her feistiness.” That’s great—readers want a character who experiences
growth and change. Yet you don’t want to give readers the wrong impression. Let
your character comment on her desire to stop being a doormat, even if we then
must go back to a time before that change happens.

In a novel’s first few pages, readers will choose whether
they care enough about your character to follow her for the rest of the story.
It seems risky to make this character unlikeable or piteous rather than willing
to fight. At the very least give readers a glimpse of what the character will
become.

First Hint of Trouble

A second common area that often needs revising toward the last is in giving readers a sense of what the character wants and what is standing in his way. Chris  Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey stresses Ordinary Time, a short period in a novel before the Inciting Incident. Yet many writers make this ordinary time a bit too ordinary.

Even before you reveal the inciting incident, you must show
your character longing for something. Show his nature (courage, willingness to
fight for his values, capacity to forgive, for example) in other ways that
assure readers they aren’t wasting their time on an apathetic or do-nothing
character.

Even if you don’t throw your character right into the fire,
at least hint that his feet are starting to feel very warm indeed. It’s OK if
the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him in the story. Give
readers the assurance that this is a character who will rise to the occasion, one
who is worthy of their time.

First Glimpse of Overall Theme

This last tip is one I’ve discovered from a lot of reading.
The masters always seem to project the novel’s overall theme and direction in
the opening, although readers may not know or understand the theme until novel’s
end.

After the story is over, readers will feel validated if they had a sense of this unity from page one. This technique isn’t as straightforward or easy as the other two tips, but if you read and study the best writers, you’ll spot what I mean. Sometimes this projection of theme is contained in the character’s thoughts, and sometimes in the action. Consider the opening lines of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine:

When people ask me what I do—taxi drivers, dental hygienists—I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there.

The overall story in this novel is of how someone so ordinary as to be invisible, comes into her own identity—figures out who she really is. The opening echoes this theme in giving readers the info about the office and her invisibility—through the eyes of someone who isn’t quite OK with being a cog in a wheel.

This is what I mean by the first page or opening of a novel hinting or foreshadowing the story as a whole. If you can accomplish it, such an opening ultimately adds to reader satisfaction and helps readers choose to keep reading. Do you have another example of this foreshadowing in a novel?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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