How to Start a Novel: Eight Options Plus Examples

20 Jan 2023 | Fiction

Writing the first scene of a novel is tricky.

Perhaps you’ve been slowly developing an idea for weeks, months, or even years. You might have written pages of notes or created a full outline. And now you’ve opened up the document to start … but how do you actually begin?

Whether it’s the first sentence that has you stumped, or the whole of the opening scene, hopefully one (or more) of these options will help you move forward with starting your novel.

(If your problem isn’t so much the opening scene but how to begin on a novel-length project, then my post How to Start Writing a Novel: Get Inspired and Get Going is for you.)

First … What Exactly is a Hook (and Why Do You Need One?)

However you open your story, you need some kind of hook on the first page.

A hook can be anything that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to carry on. 

Often, it’s an unanswered question (explicit or implied) – like who murdered this victim in a crime novel or how will the protagonist get out of this in a thriller. But a hook might also be a particularly compelling situation or character: anything that will intrigue the reader enough to get them to turn the page.

Hopefully, it’s fairly clear from that why you need a hook. You don’t want someone to open up the “Look Inside” view of your book on Amazon, read the first two paragraphs, and then move straight on to find a different book instead. You want to get their attention.

However you choose to start your story, you need to make sure there’s some kind of hook on your first page.

That means carefully choosing when and how your novel begins.

When Could Your Novel Begin?

Figuring out when to begin a story can be tricky. It might seem to make sense to start your novelat the beginning – as the King puts it in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

That’s certainly an option (and probably the simplest one). But you might also want to begin in the past or future of the main narrative.

Starting Your Novel at the Beginning of the Story

When you start at the beginning, that doesn’t generally mean going back to your protagonist’s birth – unless that really does kick off all the action of the story.

Instead, you’re looking for the inciting incident. Something needs to take place to get your story going.

If you’re starting here, at the beginning, that usually means having some indication of what “normal” life is like for your character, before the inciting incident takes place.

Starting at the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean your story needs to be told in strictly chronological order. You could still flash back to earlier events, filling in the backstory.

Example:

Wanted: Assistant/shelf stacker/general dogsbody to work in secondhand bookshop. Must be fluent in classical literature, detest electronic books and all who indulge them, and have experience answering inane customer questions for eight hours straight. Cannot be allergic to dust or cats – if I had to choose between you and the cat, you will lose. Hard work, terrible pay. Apply within at Nevermore Bookshop.

Yikes. I closed the Argleton community app and shoved my phone into my pocket. The person who wrote that ad really doesn’t want to hire an assistant.

Unfortunately, he or she hadn’t counted on me, Wilhelmina Wilde, recently-failed fashion designer, owner of two wonky eyes, and pathetic excuse for a human. I was landing this assistant job, whether Grumpy-Cat-Obssessed-Underpaying-Ad-Writer wanted me or not.

I had no options left.

(A Dead and Stormy Night, Steffanie Holmes)

This ad is the very start of the first book in Steffanie Holmes’s Nevermore Bookshop Mysteries series. It kicks off the action: Mina (the protagonist) reads the ad and isn’t put off by it, because she loved the bookshop as a child. She applies for the role – and this kicks off the rest of not only the novel but the whole series.

Starting Your Novel With a Prologue

New authors are often warned against using prologues – and while they do carry certain risks, they’re sometimes a great choice, particularly in the fantasy genre. (Though plenty of non-fantasy novels also use prologues: Me Before You is a good example.) A prologue gives you the chance to set up a far-reaching story, and can quickly clue the reader into the story world.

The main drawbacks are that prologues can be uninteresting if they’re simply a summary of events – and that if the prologue is interesting, the reader gets briefly invested in one situation only to be suddenly plunged out of that and into the story proper. So if you’re using a prologue, make sure it’s just as engaging as any other opening would be – and give the opening of the main story a hook too.

Example:

Prologue

She wondered why she was afraid to go home.

She was within sight of the castle now, and its proximity should have calmed her. She loved the traditional building which her husband had designed, and all the men and women who lived inside it. The seat of the Neocounty of Merentha was a gleaming, ivorycoloured monument to the Revivalist dream: all the elements of Gothic perpendicular architecture that seemed so oppressive elsewhere – at the royal seat, for instance – were here combined by that unerring aesthetic sense that was her husband’s strongest attribute, to create a building that was at once a soaring display of stone arches and finials, and a very real, very comfortable home.

For a moment she reigned up her unhorse, commanding it to stillness, and tried to focus on the source of her anxiety.

(Black Sun Rising, Celia Friedman)

This prologue focuses on Almea, the wife of one of the trilogy’s main characters – it’s the only time in the whole trilogy we see her perspective (for reasons that will be apparent by the end of the prologue). Part of the purpose of the prologue is to set up the world of the novel, with unhorses, information about the suns and moons of the alien planet these characters reside upon, and a brief explanation of how this planet converts human fears into very real dangers.

This section is literally headed “Prologue”, clueing readers in that this is setting up the story rather than part of the main body of it.

Starting a Novel in the Middle of the Story

Another option is to begin in media res – in the middle of the story. This usually means starting with action: with some dramatic moment that will grab the reader’s attention. The potential downside of this is that your opening could seem confusing and, at some stage, you’ll need to fill in the pieces of what’s led up to this point.

It can be tricky to find the “right” point to begin if you’re starting in the middle of a story. There might be an obvious place – as in the example – or you may need to look for a good scene that will make for a compelling opening.

Example:

“What’s two plus two?”

Something about the question irritates me. I’m tired. I drift back to sleep.

A few minutes pass, then I hear it again.

“What’s two plus two?”

The soft, feminine voice lacks emotion and the pronunciation is identical to the previous time she said it. It’s a computer. A computer is hassling me. I’m even more irritated now.

“Lrmln,” I say. I’m surprised. I meant to say “Leave me alone” – a completely reasonable response in my opinion – but I failed to speak.

(Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir)

Project Hail Mary opens with the main character, Ryland Grace, waking up from an induced coma. He has amnesia and so much of the early part of the story involves him (and the reader) piecing together memories and working out what’s happening – as well as exploring his current environment. The story continues to move forward, along with flashbacks to scenes set earlier in the narrative time.

How Could Your Novel Begin?

Figuring out when in the narrative to begin your story is one big step. But you’ll also need to work out how to actually start. What will you write in your opening lines, or opening paragraphs?

Beginning a Novel With Action

Some novels kick off with action: from the very first line, or at least the first paragraph, things are happening. This can make for a great hook – though you’ll also likely need to bring the action to a close fairly quickly so you can fill in the reader on what’s going on and why.

Starting with action doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have something really dramatic happening. But it means beginning with a scene: characters interacting and doing something.

Example:

The Worst Birthday

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

“Third time this week!” he roared across the table. “If you can’t control that owl, it’ll have to go!”

Harry tried, yet again, to explain.

“She’s bored,” he said. “She’s used to flying around outside. If I could just let her out at night…”

(Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling)

Here, the story begins with an argument over breakfast, which becomes more heated after Harry says to his cousin Dudley, “You’ve forgotten the magic word.” After a couple of pages, the action of the scene comes to a pause so the reader (who may not necessarily have read the first Harry Potter book, or may have read it some time ago) can be filled in on who Harry Potter is and why his uncle reacts so strongly to the use of the word “magic”.

Beginning a Novel with a Character

Another option is to start off focused on a character. Usually, this will be the novel’s protagonist, though that’s not inevitably the case. Starting with the focus on a character is common in first-person narratives.

Example:

They said the war would turn us into light.

I wanted to be counted among the heroes who gave us this better world. That’s what I told the recruiter. That’s what I told my first squad leader. It’s what I told every CO, and there were … a couple. And that’s what I’d tell myself, when I was alone in the dark, cut off from my platoon, the sky full of blistering red fire, too hot to send an evac unit, and a new kid was squealing and dying on the field.

But it’s not true.

I signed up because of what they did to São Paulo. I signed up because of the Blink. All my heroes stayed on the path of light, no matter how dark it got.

(The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley)

This novel starts with Dietz, the viewpoint character, setting up the story. There are hints at what’s to come – almost a flashforward in the second paragraph – but mainly, we’re getting to know more about Dietz as a person. Within a page or two, the story moves into a clear scene, “I was at a party not long after the Blink, drinking a jet-fuel tasting concoction out of a pulpy compostable bag, when a kid from my basic education class wandered over.”

Beginning a Novel With Dialogue

Launching in on the first page with a line of dialogue gets the reader immediately into the story. You might have something dramatic or unexpected, or just a relatively normal sentence that begins to build up a picture of the characters and setting.

Example:

Bonfire Night, eight years ago

“These are the last two crates,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs at The Starfish Café. I weaved between the pine tables and placed them down at the far end of the room beside several other crates of Christmas decorations.

Angie looked up from unpacking the seven-foot artificial Christmas tree. “How is it Bonfire Night already? I swear the summer tourists only went home yesterday.”

“I hear you! Am I best not to mention that tomorrow is exactly seven weeks till Christmas Day?”

“Argh, don’t! I haven’t even thought about presents yet.”

(Snowflakes Over The Starfish Café, Jessical Redland)

This novel begins with a line of dialogue, with two characters beginning a conversation: clueing the reader into the setting and the time of year. This is another good example of a prologue: in fact, quite a bit of Snowflakes Over The Starfish Cafe is told out of chronological order, as there’s a lot in the characters’ pasts that impinges on their present

Beginning a Novel With Description

Starting with a description can ease the reader into the story – so long as you still have some kind of hook. Descriptions can be beautiful and engaging, but they can quickly become boring, which means you’ll need to move fairly quickly into a scene taking place with dialogue and action.

Example:

Laurel Bank, my childhood home. For a moment, standing there on the pavement, I forgot that it belonged to someone else now. It looked as if it had been waiting patiently all these years, through twenty-three summers and winters, its Edwardian red brick warmed by the sun and washed clean by the soft Suffolk rain. Waiting for me to return from school, or Brownies, or from my Saturday morning swimming lesson. And watching, with its windows that looked like eyes, set in a familiar face.

It looked smaller than I’d remembered, and a little neglected, with peeling windowsills and weeds poking through the paving on the front path. The lawn hadn’t been mown in a while and the grass was thick and springy-looking, studded with daisies.

(The Child in My House, Lucy Lawrie)

The opening of The Child in My House has a clear hook: after the first couple of paragraphs, we’re wondering what has prompted the narrator, Juliet, to return to her childhood home – and we’re also curious about the current inhabitants of the house and why it seems a bit neglected.

Beginning a Novel With a Letter or Message

One way to get going is with a letter or message: some piece of information that gets the story going. This could be almost anything: a text, an email, even a TV or radio broadcast – or a TikTok video. Whatever it is, the news communicated in that message needs to impact the main character’s life to such an extent that it kickstarts the story.

Example:

Received message

Encryption: 0

From: Goran Orbital Cooperative Info Team (path 8486-747-00

To: Ooli Oht Ouloo (path 5787-598-66)

Subject: Possible service outage today

This is an update from the Goran Orbital Cooperative regarding satellite network coverage between the hours of 06:00 and 18:00 today, 236/307.

We will be performing routine maintenance and adjustments on a portion of our solar energy fleet. While we hope to avoid any disruptions in service, there is a possibility that residents and business owners in Neighbourhoods 6, 7, and 8 (South) may experience a temporary decrease or loss in power during the hours stated above.

(The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Becky Chambers)

This is a fairly innocuous message to start off a story: it’s a low-key message about possible power outages. We can glean quite a bit from the message, though: we learn the name of the main character (Ooli Oht Ouloo, usually referred to as Ouloo in the story) and we start to get a sense of the place in which she lives.

The message is important because the three characters who come to Ouloo’s establishment – a dome offering fuel, food, baths, and more to space travellers who are normally stopping off for a few hours – end up stuck there for much longer than expected, due to issues caused by the power outage.

Getting Started on Your First Draft

If you’re working on your first draft – just start anywhere! I know that putting those first few sentences down can feel like a very big deal, but chances are, you’ll end up revising them at some point anyway. When I was drafting and redrafting Lycopolis, I went through a whole bunch of different opening scenes as I refined the story and figured out the right point and the right way to begin.

If you’re rewriting your novel, think about the job of your opening. It needs to draw the reader into the story and keep them turning the pages. That’s all. It doesn’t need to perfectly set up everything they need to know, and you don’t have to have such a memorable first line that it’ll be quoted for decades to come. You just need to intrigue the reader enough that they’ll want to carry on reading.

Some types of novel openings are trickier to pull off than others – hence the common advice to avoid prologues – but they might well be right for your novel. Try out a few different options and see which you like best.

About

I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.

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