Ten Ways to Begin Your Novel

Editors and agents receive numerous manuscripts in their inbox. You have seconds to grab their attention with a stunning opening line. Here are ten ways to take yours from the mundane to the exceptional.

Start with a heart wrenching dilemma:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

Describe an unusual character:

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

Settings are another way to begin—but keep it short and vivid.

The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. —Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

Use a striking statement (Note how brief this is.):

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Consider an unusual presentation of ideas:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities(1859)

Grab the reader by describing the landing of a 747 or some other unusual technical device.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1950))

Put your character in immediate danger.

The last camel collapsed at noon.  —Ken Follett, Key to Rebecca (1980)

Try catchy dialogue but keep it short. Reader doesn’t know who is talking until you tell them.

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. —Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

Openings are contrived but done so skillfully they don’t appear that way.



6 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Begin Your Novel

  1. Diane Dean White

    “Macomb was a tired old town even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow it was hotter then. Men’s collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps,and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting to sweat and
    sweet talcum.” Harper Lee, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

    Love this beginning, although she is talking about the weather….wish I could come up with one similar. :)

  2. Laurean Brooks

    Hi Judy,

    Thank you for these opening lines. Reading them has made me consider changing my WIP by moving the bombshell line to the top instead of building the scene first and then dropping the bomb.

    I especially liked George Orwell’s line. Strange that hubby and I were discussing “1984″ only this afternoon. Then I find it mentioned here.


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