QUIZ: How should you start your novel?

First, a Pop Quiz

I’m going to give you four openings of books, and you tell me how they hook the reader. Why does the reader keep reading?

1. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

2. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.

3.  When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

4. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special significance, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Here are the sources for the openings:

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  2. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
  3. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Here are my answers of what might be going through a reader’s mind as s/he reads the openings:

  1. That’s an intriguing idea. I wonder what more the author has to say or show about it. (Answers)
  2. I want to know more about this guy; he seems interesting. (Character)
  3. Immediate: What’s the Reaping? By the end of the chapter: What happens next? (Answers, Time)
  4. Who’s Bilbo? Where’s Bag End? Eleventy-first birthday? A Party? Hobbiton? (World)

Earlier this week I posted about WATCH, a method of figuring out which of four elements your novel focuses on. Each novel has all four, but novels generally stress one over the others. When you know which element is your focus, you have a good idea of how to start and end your novel, giving it continuity. The four elements are World, Answers (or theme), Time (or events), and Character. Read about them on the previous post.

Tricky Beginnings and Endings

Beginning and ending your book with your focus element is a helpful tip. It isn’t a rule. To Kill A Mockingbird begins with a statement about Jem, Scout’s brother, then talks about events leading up to his injury, and then the book ends on theme.

Tuck Everlasting begins with a mystery and ends with a theme, but the epilogue ends with more events. All together, the story is a Time story—readers want to know what happens next.

The Outsiders starts by talking about the narrator and ends with him wanting to tell the world about his friends. The book’s themes and plot and world are important, but the story begins and ends with character.

A Study in Scarlet is a mystery, but the first chapter is about Dr. Watson introducing himself and then being told about Sherlock Holmes. But even the character of Holmes is its own mystery, which is why the reader doesn’t want to know how the characters grow so much as answer the question of who they are.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation begins with an “excerpt” from the Encyclopedia Galactica. It’s not difficult to guess that World is definitely a focus in his books.

A Note Regarding Prologues

Agents want to read and represent a book that hooks them from the first paragraph. That’s why plenty of agents despise prologues. But wait, you say, plenty of fantasy and sci-fi books start with prologues. If World is your focus, you’re more likely to get away with a prologue. If the focus is Character or Answers, then you likely should not have a prologue—backstory and answers should be revealed throughout the book. Don’t give your milk away for free if you’re trying to sell a cow.

If you are debating about including a prologue, first consider the following:

  • Is there any other way you can effectively incorporate this information without putting it at the beginning?
  • Is it really that necessary?
  • Do you care that many readers will skip over it?
  • Do you care that it might annoy potential agents or publishers?

If you absolutely must include a prologue, I suggest titling it Chapter One rather than Prologue. Include a date or time stamp there and on Chapter 2 to show a shift in time or place.

YOUR Beginning: Another Quiz!

When writing or revising your beginning, ask yourself what is important to you as a writer and as a reader.

Answer each question yes/no. Then rank your “Yes” answers in order of what matters most to you.

  1. Do you want to be thought of as poignant or thought-provoking?
  2. Do you want to be known as exciting?
  3. Do you want to be known for your imagination?
  4. Do you want to be known as an intimate person?
  5. Do you read books to escape?
  6. Do you put down a book if it’s boring?
  7. Do you enjoy books that make you think?
  8. Do you tend to forget about the plot in books you’ve read, but always remember the people?
  9. Do you want people to fall in love with your characters?
  10. Do you want people to enjoy your fictional universe as much as (or more than) you do?
  11. Do you want your book to be memorable for its themes?
  12. Do you want your book to be a page-turner?

What matters most from questions 1–4: ___ (1-A, 2-B, 3-D, 4-C)

What matters most from questions 5–8: ___ (5-D, 6-B, 7-C, 4-A)

What matters most from questions 9–12: ___ (9-C, 10-D, 11-A, 12-B)

If you answered mostly A’s (Answers)—Start your book with a theme and end it with the final statement on the theme. For the rest of the novel, be sure to illustrate (show) rather than explain (tell) so you don’t get preachy. These are the books that, when thematic and done right, change people’s lives and become their most beloved books. When structured as mysteries or capers, these are the most open to becoming series.

If you answered mostly B’s (Time)—Start your book immediately with the inciting incident, and end each chapter with a change of events. Finish the book with a final change of events (which might be a cliff-hanger if this is part of a series). These books are the ones that people can’t put down and recommend to their friends because it’s such a thrilling read.

If you answered mostly C’s (Characters)—Start and end your book with interesting details about the character. Voice is everything. So is making the character sympathetic by using rooting interests. These are the books that people fall in love with, that generate the most fan fiction.

If you answered mostly D’s (World)—Fascinate them with the world you create. Start with a regular day, if it’s really amazing. Otherwise begin with the most interesting places or event in your world, and end once the world finds a new normal. These are the books that people immerse themselves in—the ones that generate the most cosplays and fan art. They have a very high potential for spin-offs. (They are also the ones that have the highest costuming and CGI budgets when transferred to film!)

Choosing the best kind of beginning for your book

Relevant Links

The 8 Cs chart

The 8 C’s of Plotting: Prologue, Opening, Captivation, Change

This is Part 3 of The 8 C’s of Plotting. Read parts one and two first, if you please. Click here for the whole series on the 8 C’s. Click the image below to be taken to the General Fiction Feed.

I’m grouping all four of these parts of the 8 C’s together because, well, some authors do it all in one. single. sentence.

But before I get to examples, let me explain what these four elements are. And to really mess things up, I’m going to do it in the order you figure them out, NOT the order in which they appear in your book.


The Change, or “inciting incident,” is what gives you a story. A character starts off with a sense of stability, something rocks the normalcy boat, and the protagonist is thrown into a sea of chaos. The boat gets shattered by a giant squid, the protagonist can’t swim, there are sharks in the water, and your guy floats on flotsam and jetsam until he gets to shore, where he finds a new stability. He kisses the sand, and the camera fades to black.

Normal->chaotic->normal. This is plot at its simplest.

The Change takes the character out of normal life and changes things. Hence the name. In Finding Nemo, it’s when Nemo gets bagged by a snorkeling dentist.

This is where you start thinking about the beginning of your book.


Your opening is anything that happens before the change. Do whatever you want with the opening—as long as you keep a reader’s attention. The opening can be your first line, it can be the first scene, or it can be the first chapter. It’s the calm before the chaos, the Status Quo before the inciting incident. Put the change in your first sentence, and your opening is a matter of words. Mind you, they need to be finely crafted, carefully chosen words. (I’ll get to opening lines in a minute.)

In the opening, give your protagonist likable features to make sure the reader likes him or her. Donna Macmeans calls these Rooting Interests, and she posts a list of them on her blog. When I started writing my novel, I didn’t like my protagonist. You know you’re in trouble when YOU don’t like your own main character. Solution? I got him punched in the face and watched him fight back. There. Now I like him.

To show an opposite example, I will never like Catcher in the Rye because Holden Caulfield annoys the crap out of me. To me, Holden is the phony one, not everybody he comes in contact with. (Just count how many times the word “phony” appears in that book.) If Salinger’s intent was to explore the irony of a teenager projecting his own phoniness, then I can appreciate the irony. I will still never pick it up again.


If you desire to have your audience skip over a chapter of your novel, entitle it “Prologue.”

Seriously, so many people don’t read the prologue. I remember hearing of one author who’s own daughter skipped over his. I used to be a skipper. Apparently once I read a prologue that completely gave away the ending, because for years I assumed I’d stumble over a spoiler in that section. And I hate spoilers. My husband could hide my birthday present in plain sight, and I’d refuse to look at it until my birthday. He could put it in the refrigerator, and I’d be digging around in there with my eyes closed, using my sense of smell to guide me to the taco salad.

I’m glad I have a nice husband.

Anyway…what if you are writing something and it is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE that you fill the reader in on something before the story starts? Well, if you ask me, you make it your first chapter. Take a hint from Ms. Rowling and just slap a “Chapter One” on that bad boy and be done with it. But it had better have the Captivation in the first paragraph, and you’d better put some foreshadowing or character building in there, too. Otherwise your editor, if she’s worth her salt, will scrap those pages for you. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anybody gets paid by the word anymore. In this day and age, if you want people to read what you have to say, ya’ll better get to the point.


This is the first C because it is what makes or breaks a deal with a publisher, not because it necessarily comes first. It’s sort of floating around on the plotting diagram not only because it’s hard to pinpoint, but because it can happen in the opening or prologue, or it can be the statement of the change. The Captivation is what publishers call the “Hook.” To me, the hook is elusive. It might be a characteristic of the protagonist, the setting, an event, or a single sentence, the voice, the style of writing. Basically it depends on genre.

The one rule about “hooks” is this: the earlier it occurs, the better. If you can blow away your reader with the first line, you can guarantee they’ll read the next one. Your first chapter is the most important in the book, and your first line is the most important line. I’m not just talking about selling books, I’m talking about people reading your books. Publishers are readers, too. Let’s talk about opening lines, shall we?

Opening Lines

We are going to start with my favorite first line of all time.

“Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Home run. Introduction of the character, characterization, and a humorous style.

Here’s my other personal favorite:

“The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.” —William Goldman, The Princess Bride

You can tell that I’m a sucker for a humorous narrator. This line begins with voice, setting, and if you pay attention, motif (beauty). It also makes it clear that, though it’s going to start talking about Annette, Buttercup is the main character.

Meredith Borders has an article on The Top 10 Best Opening Lines of Novels. In it, she says, “The first line should tell the reader what to expect in terms of language, plot and character. It should be mysterious and compelling, either poetic or shockingly abrupt.”

While I think her points are valid, I don’t completely agree. I think there’s a bit more leeway. First, I’d say that it should show (cough cough) the reader what to expect in terms of language or style, yes. If the rest of your book is poetic, then make your first line poetic. Just make sure it doesn’t look like somebody else wrote it.

Second, I’m not sure what she means by telling the reader what to expect in terms of plot. I assume she means theme, since she listed the first lines of Pride and Prejudice and Peter Pan in her list. And theme is the backbone of a good story. But plot is what happens in a story. Theme is why the story needs telling.

Third—what to expect in terms of language, plot and character—I’d use the conjunction “or” instead, since some opening lines use either plot or character, not both. I prefer characterizing in the first sentence, since it is a more concrete method than creating a lofty observation. To a writing teacher, concrete is always preferable to abstract. If you start with an abstract line, your second one best be specific and concrete. Otherwise use that observation to characterize a smarmy narrator.

Fourth, how about setting? My writing professors always beat us over the head with three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Concrete, not abstract.
  3. GROUNDING (That’s the war cry which translated means, “Be specific to paint a clear image.” If you use proper nouns, you are certainly grounding.)

Tolkien didn’t start The Hobbit with, “Some place a creature lived.” He also didn’t start with “There once was a hobbit.” He created setting and characterization in just ten words: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Want 25 more openers? Check this out (some repeats are lengthened here).

Nine Ways to Start a Novel

There are other ways to start a novel. Roseanne Knorr lists nine:

  1. Startle
  2. Action
  3. Anecdote
  4. Dialogue
  5. Introduce protagonist
  6. Introduce conflict
  7. Establish setting
  8. Establish arena
  9. Generate Emotion and Personality

Read her explanations in the full article here. Notice she uses the word “capture” in the title, another word for “hook” or “captivate.”


Think of your favorite books. How did they captivate you? What are your favorite opening lines? Comment below with your response.


Write at least 3 different openings for the same story. You can use a current work in progress (WIP) or choose someone else’s novel to practice with. Consider which approach is your favorite.

Related post: WATCH, or: Where to Start and End your Novel