Maybe you have this grand story idea in your head, but you don’t know where to start. The first paragraph, the first sentence?
The members in many writers’ groups will simply say, “Just write,” when you’re looking for advice, and this is more than a little frustrating.
Beginning a Novel With a Hook
Even more frustrating is when they’ve given advice to start the story “with a hook.” Most of these advice-givers then leave it at that with no additional context.
Well, duh, we want to hook our readers. But how?
I’m going to talk a little more broadly about beginning a story and then dive into first sentences and hooks, etc.
Writing a Novel Opening: What Are the Elements of a Good Beginning?
- A compelling character – Plot is what readers enjoy, but it’s character that keeps them invested.
- A hook – Ah, that word again. Don’t worry; we’ll get there.
- A triggering event – What happens to put the character on the path to the climax?
- The setting – Where and when are we? Knowing this as early as possible is good. Context is good.
So How Do You Even Begin a Novel or Story?
If you’ve already nailed down your main character’s conflict—and perhaps even if you haven’t—my best advice is to begin with your character being “off balance.”
An “inciting incident” or “triggering event,” one that may lead directly to the conflict and climax of your story, has happened. Your character’s life will NEVER be the same.
In The Hobbit, it is the moment where a wizard and a dozen dwarves invade his life with a quest he never asked for.
How to Begin a Novel: First Chapter
Now, the opening of The Hobbit doesn’t begin there. In fact, J. R. R. Tolkien backs it up just a bit to set the scene.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
This is important because it sets the tone and further emphasizes the conflict to create added drama and urgency.
Bilbo follows the law of inertia in that he is a hobbit at rest and will stay at rest unless an opposing force sets him in motion—and it does.
The best first chapters set that tone and conflict in addition to specifying the who, the when, and the where.
How to Write an Inciting Incident in a Novel
The following video talks about outlining a novel from the middle, but it actually has good nuggets about inciting incidents.
In addition, you can read my article on inciting incidents:
Having a great inciting incident is awesome, but it means nothing if your readers (or the publishing professionals you’re pitching to) don’t get past the first sentence.
How to Start a Book: First Sentence
The first sentence really has one singular job, and that’s to get the reader to read the second sentence (and so on until the reader is invested in the characters and story with enough momentum to continue on).
Examples of Killer Opening Lines & The Best Novel Opening Paragraphs [Infographic]
What Is a Narrative Hook in Fiction? [Definition]
A hook is defined as a literary technique of “grabbing the reader’s attention” in the first line or lines of the story to get them to read on. Basically what we’ve already discussed at length.
How to Write a Good Hook for a Story
Saying it and doing it are two completely different things, though. Here are some tips and best practices on how to hook a reader:
Start With Intrigue
One way to get readers hooked is by appealing to their sense of curiosity. If that first sentence on its own sets up a mystery, the reader may be compelled to continue in order to satiate their curiosity i.e. solving the mystery.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude
Choose a Moment of Action or Imbalance
We’ve already covered imbalance at length, so let’s talk motion. The faster and more intense the motion, the more likely that the reader will be swept along by the forceful current of the story.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Stephen King, The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
Infuse It With the Character’s Personality or State of Mind
Your main character is unknown to the reader. Drop them in their thoughts at an unexpected moment.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Take a truth a reader may have about the world and add a surprising twist that sets expectations about this new literary world they’re entering in order to pique their interest.
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell, 1984
Set the Tone (With Drama)
What is the theme or tone your novel conveys? Now summarize it in a dramatic sentence that both introduces the reader to the universe while setting the stage for the events that follow. It could be an explosive thought-provoker or a philosophical statement of beliefs the character holds.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
A Word of Encouragement for Beginning Your Story
Don’t get so paralyzed by the beginning that you fail to begin at all. Start how you feel is best for now; you can always go back and revise later. There’s no need to overthink it.
If you do need help with character or plot development, check out my exercises below:
- Character Profile Exercise – How Unearth Plot Through Character
- Plot Exercise – (Comes Free With the Character Exercise)