Life in progress

Opening a Novel


According to a blog post I read here at Brainsnorts the most important part about opening a novel is the first four sentences. So I decided to go to my bookshelf and pick up four novels at random and check it out, to see if there’s anything the first few sentences have in common in each book. These were my selections:

Standing Stones – The Best stories of  John Metcalf

“Single Gents Only” (a short story)

After David had again wrested the heavy suitcase from his father’s obstinately polite grip and after he’d bought the ticket and assured his mother he wouldn’t lose it, the three of them stood in the echoing booking hall of the railway station. His mother was wearing a hat that looked like a pink felt Christmas pudding.

David knew that they appeared to others as obvious characters from a church-basement play. His father was trying to project affability or benevolence by moving his head in an almost imperceptible nodding motion while gazing with seeming approval at a Bovril advertisement.

This seems to me like a promising story. There is movement in it in the form of the fact that these people are going somewhere. The fact that the son takes the suitcase from his father tells me that he’s an adult. I want to know where they’re going. The description is good enough that I can imagine the scene easily.

The Marks of Cain by Tom Knox

Simon Quinn was listening to a young man describe how he’d sliced off his own thumb.

“And that,” said the man, “was the beginning of the end. I mean, cutting off your thumb, with a knife, that’s not nothing, is it? That’s serious shit. Cutting your own thumb off. Fucked my bowling.”

Okay, that was more than four sentences, but they were short ones. Shoot me. This opening is interesting. It doesn’t have much in the area of description, but how much description do we need? We can easily imagine the blood involved. Who is the man to Simon and why is he listening to such a horrific story? I want to know more.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and paper with which he always traveled.

I met Mrs. Baird in the front hall on my way out.

This opens very nicely indeed. The description is lush and from it we gather that Mrs. Baird is not going to be a central character, as we don’t get her first name from the narrator. Best of all, the very first sentence tells us that something mysterious will happen! Again, I want to read more!

Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James

I stare up through gaps in the sea-grass parasol at the bluest of skies, summer blue, Mediterranean blue, with a contented sigh. Christian is beside me, stretched out on a sun lounge. My husband – my hot, beautiful husband, shirtless and in cut-off jeans – is reading a book predicting the collapse of the Western banking system. By all accounts, it’s a page-turner.

Here we have two shades of blue and a good-looking man reading a boring book.

So. What do three of these openings have in common? Amazing descriptiveness, movement, action and/or gore and some element which makes us want to know more. What’s going to happen? Who are these people? Why are they; 1. in a train station; 2. cutting off their own thumbs; 3. staying in a place where someone is going to disappear?

And number 4? It tells us what not to do. By all accounts, it’s a page-turner. 😉

Thank you again to Brainsnorts for the idea for this post!

Author: Linda G. Hill

There's a writer in here, clawing her way out.

23 thoughts on “Opening a Novel

  1. “Knighthood, chivalry, faire maidens, courtly love… ENOUGH!” Anyman shouted as he stood and stretched his six-foot-two frame as tall as possible, flinging both arms upward toward the high ceiling. Twelfth-century romance ignited his passion, yet mixed with his current life and embroiled him in an uncomfortable and frustrating, mental and emotional tug of war.
    He slammed shut the heavy reference book that lay on the table in the main room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, leaned forward and, resting his weight on his two locked arms and closed fists pressed into the big book’s leather cover, he sighed.”

    What say you, LindaGHill?


  2. Or use your great blog here to capture them BEFORE the first 4 sentences? 😉


  3. Thank you, I have just gone back to the beginning of my shory story and am rewriting the first paragraph. Taking out all those adverbs and generally trying to improve it.


    • You’re welcome! 🙂 That’s exactly what I did with my novel after I read the blog that inspired this one. I also suggest you do what I did and read the first 2 paragraphs of every (published on paper) novel you can get your hands on. You’ll see a pattern!


  4. Great post. I just started ‘The Night Circus’ and the first few sentences are gorgeous and inviting. Even though it’s not my typical type of read, I can’t wait to dive deeper (I only managed the short first chapter last night–too tired).

    Thanks for stopping by my site. I appreciate it! I’ll be back to yours when I’m officially back from my summer hiatus. Good stuff here. 🙂


  5. Great idea and post. What I like about blogging is that the principle is the same, you need to get the reader’s attention right away, to draw them into the post, no matter how long or short it is.


  6. Interesting! Now I want to read a couple of these, especially Outlander. 🙂


  7. What great advice. I try to do these with my own posts. I bold the first sentence and try to make it enticing so that the reader will keep reading!


  8. That first one had too many big words. I’d have quit after three sentences.


  9. Nice job of showing good openings rather than telling


  10. I thought that said Fifty Shades of Fred at the bottom. Great examples by the way.


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