Slow Or With A Bang: What’s The Best Way To Start A Novel?

I’m writing on this topic because it’s a real question of mine, and I feel like I’ve been running in circles with it. Maybe thinking about it in type will bring me to some kind of conclusion.

There are a few rules about novel openings that seem standard: don’t open with a character waking up/with an alarm clock, don’t open with the weather, don’t open with a giant info-dump about the character’s description. All right, I’m on board with all of that. Easy enough. Where I get stuck is the tempo of a book opening. Is it better to ease into the story or smack the reader in the face with immediate action?

Writers/agents/editors say you need a hook to start a novel. Makes sense. Something interesting needs to happen to draw the reader into the story and keep them there. My critique group has a queue called the “hook queue”, which is a nightmarish place to be because you put the first chapter up and critters tell you the exact point when they stopped reading or “failed to be hooked”. Ouch.

I haven’t submitted to the hook queue myself, but I have submitted a few novel openings to the regular queue. Allow me to show you how some of this went down with just an opening paragraph (though opinions were about the first scene) of the YA novel I’ve been working on. I put the story on the critique site because I couldn’t figure out the best way to open it.

This was the original opening:

Drake turned his sister’s dead phone around in his hand while staring out the broken window at the desolate city. The hot, summer air blew against his face.

The verdict? Too slow. Why not start at the actual confrontation that occurred just before this? Fair enough, I thought. New opening:

Drake squeezed his eyes closed at the sound of the shattering glass. He pulled against the two who held his arms, keeping him from throwing the vandal out the thirty-eighth floor window.

I haven’t submitted the revised chapter, but my author friend who reads all my work said she doesn’t know enough about the character to care if someone is breaking his stuff.

Sigh.

I think I’vopeninge been thinking about this too narrowly. Maybe it doesn’t have to be slow vs. action. Maybe it has to just be interesting enough to keep the reader there until the next interesting thing occurs. I read somewhere (and I can’t remember where – if any of you know what I’m talking about, please tell me because I’d love to find it again) that we basically “buy time” from the reader with our opening pages and chapters. The first page gets them for the next ten (or whatever the number was), and those ten keep them for the next hundred.

While I was thinking about this, I started reading a new book, and the opening paragraph is the description of a house. A house. No character. No action. It was just a house. Granted, it was beautifully described, but it certainly wasn’t doing or thinking anything. I’m pretty sure if I submitted that to the critique group, I would be ripped to shreds. But there it was, in a best-selling novel, and you know what? I kept reading. In the mood of that chapter, an action opening wouldn’t have made any sense at all.

So I think my approach should be open with what will keep them there. How that’s done depends on the mood of the chapter and the book as a whole.

What do you think? Do you prefer writing or reading certain types of openings? 

5 thoughts on “Slow Or With A Bang: What’s The Best Way To Start A Novel?

  1. “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” – DaVinci Code. So much for rule number 1.

    “I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.” – Catching Fire. So much for rule number 2.

    I like your original opening much better than the revision based on the recommendations of your critique group. It asks a question, and very well. I don’t like your “improved” opening nearly as much. I agree with your author friend – I don’t care about this guy breaking stuff. It sounds like the opening to a mob thriller. (Is it?)

    Slow and interesting are two different things. Fast and interesting are also two different things.

    Anybody who reads fiction expects to invest some time in getting to know the story. I think the most important duty an author has in the beginning is to set things up as efficiently as possible without sarificing important information. The “hook” doesn’t have to come write away. It has to come somewhere around the 10% mark. And it can’t really be effective until the audience knows *something* about the character and story and are asking some sort of question about what’s going to happen. A hook needs context to work properly and you don’t have context until you’ve spent a few pages constructing it.

    I don’t think you should be concerned about getting somebody to read past page one. Unless your totally sucks, take that as a given. But you do have to give them something to wonder about. You don’t have to grab them by the throat in one sentence. In fact, that’s probably not even possible.

    Here’s my opening paragraph: “Tyrus pulled back on the reins and eased to a stop just as the manor came into view. His eyes went immediately to the tower, to the last place in the castle he had seen before joining the King’s army.” Slow as hell, but I try to ask a question right away: What about the tower? Why is that important to him? Why did he notice it first? The answer to that question is a crucial part of the story.

    Would this be any better? “Tyrus gripped the limp body of the last warrior he would ever kill by the throat and flung him to the blood-soaked ground. A voice floated out to him through the ringing in his ears. A messenger rode out to him and handed him a scroll that said he was going home.”

    Which one makes you more curious?

    As for Drake, knowing nothing about your story, I’d do something like this:

    The air rose up from the broken ruins of the city below. He felt the hot wind scurry through the broken window to lash at the sweat running down his face. He looked at his sister’s phone in his hand. It was quiet now and he wondered if it would ever ring again.

    Ruins? Broken windows? Dead phones that imply sister might be dead too? What the heck is going on here?

    Yeah, I like your first one better.

    Stephen King said, “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” You did that.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. It’s so funny you mention Da Vinci Code, because I just started reading that a few days ago and the opening jumped out at me as well. He also describes himself while looking in a mirror. Ha.
      I like your idea of posing a question right away, and I really like your opening. Drake’s story is an urban fantasy/distopian mashup, since you asked. 🙂

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  2. I’ll be honest with you–I actually don’t see anything wrong with your first opening, though I think the preponderance of adjectives might bog it down a little. I might take it down to ‘Drake turned his sister’s dead phone around in his hand and stared out the broken window at the city below. Summer air blew against his face.’ It’s summer air, we can trust it’s hot. The city, I assume, will get a better description than ‘desolate’ later on.

    There are still questions there I’d expect to see answered in the first page or so–why is the window broken? Why is the phone dead?–and that’s what keeps me reading. There need to be questions in that first sentence interesting enough for me to read more to find out the answer. I don’t think everything had to start in media res, though a big info dump in the first few pages usually isn’t good (not enough questions). For me, adjectives (little cousin to the Big Meanie, adverbs) should be kept minimal in the first sentence, because they slow the reader down, and you do have roughly 100,000 words of novel after that first sentence to describe what you’re seeing.

    And actually, one of my more successful stories did start with an alarm clock ringing. Then again, it was a very special alarm clock. The main character shot it about 20,000 words in. Maybe that’s a special case, but you know, never say never. 😛

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    • The adjective thing occurred to me too, after I posted the story to the crit site. That’s why drafts are wonderful gifts; we get as many as we want! 🙂
      Sounds like you made the alarm clock thing work! I’m sure lots of people can relate to wanting to shoot theirs.

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