How to start a novel: First chapter examples that hook

Mastering how to start a novel with promise, intrigue or riveting suspense is important for hooking your reader fast.

Read first chapter examples from diverse genres that give eight insights on how to write better beginning sentences and paragraphs:

How to start a novel that grabs attention: 8 ideas

Raise questions with your first line
Intrigue with teasing actions
Immerse readers in immediate setting
Promise excitement or exception
Establish your story’s tone
Begin with the before
Share an unusual image or thought
Give your own spin to a familiar theme

Let’s explore these ideas about beginning sentences and pages further, with help from examples in first chapters across genres:

1. Raise questions with your first line

In deciding how to start a novel, there are countless options. The task may seem daunting for that exact reason.

However the beginning of your story has one job above all others: Earning your reader’s curiosity and desire to continue.

Here are some first lines from classic and contemporary novels that make us want to know more. Not all are particularly action-heavy or flashy, but all create curiosity:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

The first sentence of Marquez’s acclaimed novel creates questions.

Who is this man and why does he end up facing the death penalty?
Where and when does he live that he would journey to ‘discover’ ice?

In a single sentence, Marquez makes us curious about the Colonel, while also implying a very sticky end.

The mix of adventure and danger promised leads us onward, into Marquez’s multi-generational saga.

2. Intrigue with teasing actions

George Orwell, another master of how to start a novel, gives us this example:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Orwell begins with setting and a strange event: Clocks striking an unlikely hour.

The action is teasing because it seems impossible. Modern clocks usually strike up to 12 times, beginning again from ‘one’ for one o’clock.

In the 14th and 15th Centuries, though, clocks that struck 24 times were more common. This strange anachronism (a detail from another time and place) subtly suggests that everything is out of balance and out of time in Orwell’s world.

How can you make your novel’s opening actions teasing? What are characters (or objects) doing that they don’t usually do, or shouldn’t?

3. Immerse readers in immediate setting

A first line might tell us a crucial detail about a character or setting. It can also simply tease and perplex us with a statement that doesn’t immediately reveal much.

For example, the opening to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Beloved (1987).

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Morrison’s opening gives away very little but still intrigues us. ‘What is 124? A person? A place?’

In Morrison’s harrowing novel, we quickly learn that ‘124’ is the address of a house haunted by ghosts and the trauma of slavery. We soon understand why Morrison uses the unsettling, contradictory-seeming term ‘a baby’s venom’.

Each section of the novel begins with a variation on ‘124 was…’ creating a poetic cycling back, a sense of gravitation towards the house and it’s troubled history.

More recent bestselling novels have first lines that also create intrigue via immediate setting.

For example, the mysterious opening of Paula Hawkins’ multi-million selling smash hit, The Girl on the Train (2015):

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (2015)

A first line like this is compelling. It’s mysterious enough to make us ask questions. The pronoun ‘she’ in place of an introductory name gives little away.

It is also specific enough (because of the reference to a grave and location) for us to form an idea of where we are and what the story will cover (a death or even a murder). Nothing raises curiosity like the macabre. Newspaper empires were founded on this.

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4. Promise excitement or exception

The first paragraph of a story so often gives us the ‘before’ state. It tells the reader ‘this is how things are’ (or were, before everything changed).

Often, change is almost immediate. This hooks readers in faster, because there is a sense of adventure already stirring.

You might allude to an excitement or exception in your opening scenario. For example, mystery author Louise Penny implies why one dossier is unlike others:

Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside. It was a thin file. Just a few pages. Like all the rest surrounding him on the old wooden floor of his study. And yet, not like all the rest.

Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning (2016)

Why is this dossier unlike the others? What is exceptional about this case?

The dossier is squeezed shut and we want to open it and carry on reading.

5. Establish your story’s tone

The first sentence of a novel, the first sentence of any paragraph, even, is an opportunity to direct your reader’s focus.

It’s an opportunity to say ‘this is the mood’, or ‘this is the feeling’. It’s an opportunity to establish tone.

Will what follows be melancholic or cheerful? Hilarious or nail-biting?

E. Annie Proulx establishes a somewhat bleak tone, for example, quickly, in her Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News:

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.

E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

This opening establishes the tone of the story well.

Quoyle’s life, from spousal infidelity to roughing it in Newfoundland with his young children, is shown in all its raw suffering over subsequent chapters. The opening sentences are thus apropos in suggesting difficulty as well as survival, the ‘camouflaging torment’ of a stoic protagonist.

6. Begin with the before

There’s a reason Cinderella stories and makeover shows alike have a ‘before and after’ structure. There’s something timelessly engrossing about a process of transformation.

What will undergo transformation in your novel? You might look for how to start a novel so that this change is prefigured in some way.

For example, here is the how Marquez’s opening paragraph continues in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Following on from the opening about Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s memories of his father, Marquez writes:

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude

By prefacing his setting description with ‘At that time’, Marquez makes it clear that Macondo of the past is very different to Macondo of the story’s present.

There is a clear ‘before’ (and an implicit promise we will encounter momentous change, which we do).

This type of story opening gives us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. It’s thus common in historical fiction. There’s an inherent sense of excavation, of an impossible return to a distant past.

What interesting ‘before’ could herald the interesting changes in your story?

7. Share an unusual image or thought

Beginning sentences so often share what is unusual and thus hyper specific. Why the one straggler isn’t fleeing the city like all the others after an evacuation order. Why a truant kid decided to skip school.

Orhan Pamuk’s evocative memoir-meets-travelogue Istanbul about the city of his birth opens with a striking thought from childhood:

From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul (2005)

Whether writing fiction or memoir, similar principles apply to how to start.

Novel beginnings share curious images, questions and thoughts. The author imagining his own double, living somewhere in his city of birth, invites us into a child’s world of wonder and imagination.

8. Give your own spin to a familiar theme

If you’ve ever sat down and thought, ‘I can’t start my story this way, that’s been done to death,’ you would not be the first.

The truth is that we are bound to encounter similar themes in stories’ openings across genres.

For example, how common is it for a murder mystery to begin with a buried body’s coordinates (or lack thereof)?

Instead of agonizing over originality, give a familiar theme your own spin.

For example, Naomi Novik’s high fantasy novel Uprooted opens with a fresh spin on the common fantasy trope of dragons:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years.

Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015)

How can you take a common image, theme or trope and turn it on its head in your own story opening?

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