You know that feeling when you walk into a great house? Or even just an interesting house? The feeling you get that things are in order, or aren’t. The feeling of the home being well-composed or chaotic. The sense you get of the kind of person who lives there. Maybe the entryway opens onto a living room filled with natural light, or maybe the front door brings you face to face with stacks of old magazines and discarded shoes.
The opening paragraphs of a novel are like the entryway to a home. They should be inviting. They should inspire people to come in, look around. They should include enough clues to let the visitor know what kind of world she is entering, but they shouldn’t be so packed with stuff — set decoration, extra characters — that the visitor gets sensory or information overload and can’t remember anyone’s name.
In Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, Colum McCann writes:
The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
Change is at the heart of story. Without change, there is no story. You should begin your novel or story with the idea that something is going to change at any moment, and your reader should be able to feel that urgency.
In the opening paragraph of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning Less, Arthur Less is on the cusp of turning fifty. In the first two sentences of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, we learn that the narrator was sent on a mission for the British Secret Service 40 years before, and “I did not return safely.”
The lack of safety, the promise of danger — whether physical or psychological, whether immediate or impending or past — is an essential construct of the novel. Someone must be in some sort of danger, and the reader must be made to feel that danger.
In my most recent novel, The Marriage Pact, I began by writing a wedding scene. I showed the grass on the hill at the wedding site in Petaluma, CA, I showed the guests in their wedding attire, I played the Leonard Cohen song (I’ll leave it to you to imagine which one). And then, several drafts in, I realized that might not be the best way to enter the story. So I wrote a new first chapter: I put the narrator on a single-engine airplane in rapid descent, with a bloodied face, a grinding headache, and no memory of how he got there.
Your job as a novelist isn’t to write a sentence so beautiful that you think it ought to be set to music. Beautiful sentences are great, unless the sentences convey no story. Baudelaire would disagree. He said a novel must begin with des tres belles phrases — very beautiful sentences. Of course, Baudelaire was writing in a different time, when there was far less in the way of entertainment, and readers were surely more patient than we are today.
Your job as a novelist is to tell a story, and in the process of telling that story, to not be boring. Your job is to put your characters in a situation rife with change. You must unbalance them, you must make them vulnerable, you must put them through the paces. Hopefully, you will do that with terrific sentences: beautiful sentences, jarring sentences, unusual sentences, surprising sentences. But the sentences can’t just be there to proclaim their own beauty and wit; they must convey a story.
If your first paragraph is a languid and lovely description of landscape, you might lose your readers before they get to the end of the first page. Landscape, in general, does not feel active. It does not feel urgent. It feels, instead, like a writer attempting to be writerly. Of course, there are times when the landscape is exactly the right way to begin your novel; there is no hard and fast rule about how to begin. But if there’s no compelling reason to put description first, then start with character, with trouble, with whatever is urgent, crucial, and out of the ordinary.
Learn all about first chapters, novel beginnings, urgency, writing compelling characters, and more in the Online Novel Writing Master Class Series.