I looked at the first paragraphs of more than 1,000 novels to make this list.
The first paragraphs below are the ones that shocked, surprised, and delighted me. The paragraphs that made me want to read the rest of the book, the paragraphs so memorable that I would dream about them.
Writers, learn from these first paragraphs. When you’re revising the first paragraph of your novel, or preparing to start a novel, do yourself a favor and read through every single one of these. They will radically improve the start of your book.
Now, why shouldn’t you focus on first sentences? There are many lists of the best first sentences of novels, and those are great, but for my money, it’s really a paragraph which is the best measure of the start of a book.
What makes a great first paragraph? I chose paragraphs that thought of themselves as paragraphs, not a great first line followed by explanation of that line. I wanted paragraphs that used their space to create a singular effect, and used their structure in a way to draw in the reader.
7 Main Strategies For Your First Paragraph
- Create a Mystery (the most important element!)
- Describe the Emotional Landscape
- Build the Characters
- Bring the Energy
- Start with an Unusual POV
- Dazzle with the Last Sentence
- Set up the Theme
13 Minor Strategies
- Draw Your World
- Structure It Like a Plot
- Try Repetition
- Shock the Reader
- Start with an Idea
- Combine Multiple Strategies into an All-Around Great Paragraph
- Fire Up the Emotion
- Focus on the Name
- Establish the Rules of the World
- Start the Plot
- Start with an Unusual Event
- Describe Your Main Character Mysteriously
- Use Dialect
If you’re unclear how to accomplish some of these things, look at the 30 examples below. I give numerous examples from famous authors and explain what they’re accomplishing.
By the time you’ve finished reading this, you will be closer to creating a whiz-bang opening that enchants your reader.
1. Create a Mystery
Anne Enright, The Gathering
“I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.”
This opening does a marvelous job of creating mystery through uncertainty. There is the mystery of what exactly happened, but there is a second mystery about whether or not what the narrator thinks happened actually happened.
But the biggest tension of this paragraph is whether or not we should trust this narrator. I am not sure if it really did happen. Like Ian McEwan’s Atonement, this is a tension that will run through the whole book.
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
Love that this starts with a telephone ringing, and that the person calling is not asking for him. By withholding such information, Auster creates a fantastic mystery. And the rest of the paragraph emphasizes how pivotal this phone call was, and also introduces the notion about the meaning of narrative and story, which the rest of this novel will concentrate on.
Remember that the one and only true rule for the first paragraph is that it has to make the reader want to read the rest of the book. And Auster certainly accomplishes that here.
Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
“The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?”
Everyone tells you to seek clarity in your opening, to let the reader know where you’re going to take them.
Murakami blows that advice up. I love how he’s deliberately playing with confusion, so that you know that the narrator is moving inside the elevator, but you have no idea what direction. It’s a feeling of complete lack of control and awareness.
It’s a fantastic mystery to start the novel, and dovetails so nicely with the wonderland of the rest of the book.
2. Describe the Emotional Landscape
Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills
“Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I — perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past — insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.”
Ishiguro is a master of giving information slyly, elliptically, so the reader has to be quick to realize what he’s hinting at. For instance, he doesn’t say outright that this is a mixed marriage, but that single word “paradoxical” shows you that the father must be white, and the woman must be Japanese.
This paragraph shows you a central tension between the husband and wife — they have different views on how to name her, and thus probably on how to raise her — and also offers a mystery: what part of the past does the narrator not want to remember?
This isn’t just information, it’s the emotional landscape. Who is jealous of whom, what power struggles are happening between characters. Within a single paragraph you can sketch out the basic conflicts between your main characters. And that’s often the very best place to start.
Include the emotional landscape in the first paragraph.
Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business. We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will — a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”
Talk about using a character to entice the reader. You just mention “gangster” and everyone is all ears. And the emotional landscape of the son, and of his relationship to his father, is exceptionally clear. Consider how much information is packed into this single paragraph:
- You understand the conflict between the son and the father
- You get a sense of the father’s personality
- His father deeply opposed his son’s last relationship
- The narrator has just broken up with a girl
- There’s a bit of a mystery on the last line: why does his father have new freedom?
Orient the reader. Don’t play coy. Don’t try to withhold. Compress as much information as you can into the first paragraph.
3. Build the Characters
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. `Have you missed me?’ she asks. `I miss you all the time,’ he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.”
This starts with sex, but remember that sex is primarily a way not to excite a reader sexually, but to communicate about the character. And this tells us an enormous amount about the character: divorced, thinks about sex as a problem to be solved, morally kosher with visiting prostitutes, and accepts that fake affection (affection that is paid for) is satisfactory.
I keep reading not for the sex but for the character.
Shirley Jackson, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could haw been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amonita phalloid the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
This is a great example of a character building opening. If you just want a single strategy for your opening paragraph, you should pick this one. Count the number of things we learn about Mary.
- Her name
- Her age
- Her sister
- Her fanciful imagination (werewolf?)
- Her dislikes
- She is very intelligent and self taught (what other kid knows about the deathcup mushroom?)
- She is morbid
If you want to keep a reader reading, give them a character they want to follow.
4. Bring the Energy
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’étais pas moi!””
Love the energy of this opening. Zing! What a tremendous amount of liveliness and fun!
There’s so much humor in this opening paragraph, a humor that extends throughout the book, so Foer is telling the reader to expect more of the same.
You get the emotional landscape because you realize that he’s missing his father, which ends up being the central search in the entire novel (he must be missing him because he’s inventing inanimate objects to take over his father’s role).
This is the monologue style of opening, where you’re hearing from a first person narrator, much like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It’s incredible for character building because you get to hear firsthand the narrator go off with all their idiosyncrasies on display.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?””
The energy of this opening! It’s equivalent to the Jonathan Safran Foer one in terms of sheer rocketship power. The prose is blasting off into space. If you want to go to a singular goal of an energetic opening, you will certainly capture the attention of the reader.
Despite all the craziness of this opening, it really has a simple strategy: character building. This is the type of character who loves taking drugs, who drives a hundred miles an hour toward Vegas while on drugs, and who doesn’t even realize that he is the one shouting at the imaginary animals (the “voice” is his own).
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis
“Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are nighttime tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust— wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world …”
The energy of this opening paragraph comes from the ongoing speed of this sentence. No period in sight, not here!
When you start like this it’s a bullet out of a gun.
I also love the intimate, colloquial tone of the narrator. So friendly. So conversational. It’s very inviting, which counterbalances the intimidation of the lengthy run-on sentence.
5. Start With an Unusual POV
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
“We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently. Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.”
This is a very unusual strategy to open a novel. It grabs the reader by the strange point of view: the plural first person, the “we” and “us.”
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
“I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Although I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he had smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.”
Yes, start your novel with a corpse speaking! This also is a very strange point of view, but it immediately draws you into the storyline. After all, a murder mystery narrated by the murdered victim is fairly original.
6. Dazzle with the Last Sentence
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
That single word “sober” does so much for this paragraph. As if being sober at 11 o’clock in the morning is a kind of accomplishment.
He’s proud of his dress, because of the details he includes, but he’s also kind of pretending to be put together: the reader knows, from the “ought to be” and the “sober,” that he’s barely holding it together, and what he’s showing to others is a facade.
Most of the paragraph is about setting up the details and establishing character. But the last sentence is about what he’s doing — the inciting incident that will fuel the rest of the novel. A good description paragraph that opens a book will always use that last sentence to launch the reader into the action.
After focusing on the very first sentence of your book, you should focus all of your attention on the last sentence of the first paragraph. This is the springboard from which you launch into the rest of your book. It’s the very first break in the book, and thus the first chance readers have to stop reading. Don’t let them.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year’s resolution.”
This is a first paragraph that works like a funnel. So many first paragraphs work this way, where most of the first paragraph establishes the scene and the character, and then the last line of the paragraph (or second to last line, in this case), shows you the plot.
This is a good reminder that the end of your first paragraph is just as important as the first sentence of your paragraph. In fact, I could probably put together a killer list of the ends of first paragraphs.
Here is the principle:
Character + Setting —–> Plot
This way the reader wonders what is going on. There is a sense of mystery created. Yet this mystery doesn’t persist for too long. You figure out what the character is doing by the end of the paragraph.
In this case, Alfred is committing suicide. What an opening!
7. Set Up the Theme
Toni Morrison, Jazz
“Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.””
The violence in this paragraph is staggering. I count at least 5 violent acts:
- The violence of a cheating husband
- The violence of him shooting his mistress
- The threatened violence of cutting the face of a corpse
- The violence of throwing her out of the church
- The violence of setting domestic birds free where they will likely be eaten or die
Do you have a funny book? The first paragraph needs to be funny. Do you have a sad book? Make the first paragraph sad. Here Morrison prepares us for violence.
Don’t try to trick the reader. Tell them what they’re going to get right away.
Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
The voice here is incredible. I love how derogatorily he describes earth: unfashionable, backwater, unregarded, insignificant, primitive. And the whole paragraph ends with a joke, which is perfect thematically for the rest of the book.
It’s a hilarious opening, and the rest of the series is just as funny. If your book is funny or scary, let the reader sense that theme right in the first paragraph.
8. Draw Your World
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
“The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.”
This is a great example of how to use style to draw a reader in. Half of the sentences are incomplete sentences, as if half-finished sketches of the setting.
It’s vaguely menacing, even though he’s only describing nature and civilization, no people.
But it’s that second line that really gets you: every reader wants to know what that terrible thing is going to be.
Lesson: If you start with a description of a place, give it personality (like menacing and foreboding).
9. Structure It Like a Plot
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.”
I love the last line of this paragraph, and how it aligns so nicely with the very first sentence. This is a technique called bookending, where you unite a paragraph by tying the first sentence to the last sentence.
So the first line talks about murder, and the last line talks about health vanishing. Hale’s very health will be disappearing quite soon if he’s murdered!
10. Try Repetition
T.C. Boyle, Budding Prospects
“I’ve always been a quitter. I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band. Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team. I dropped out of college, sidestepped the army with a 4-F on the grounds of mental instability, went back to school, made a go of it, entered a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century British literature, sat in the front row, took notes assiduously, bought a pair of horn-rims, and quit on the eve of my comprehensive exams. I got married, separated, divorced. Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat. I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston. When I was nineteen I made frantic love to a pinch-faced, sack-bosomed girl I’d known from high school. She got pregnant. I quit town.”
Isn’t it lovely to start a novel by mentioning all the things that the narrator quit? It’s like he’s quitting right at the beginning.
But the repetition of this key word gives the paragraph a tight and wonderful shape.
Lesson: Repeat a single word to tie your paragraph together
11. Shock the Reader
Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves
“I still get nightmares. In fact, I get them so often that I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.”
What an existential horrorshow! Constant, unrelenting nightmares. I’m terrified yet kind of want to keep reading to figure out the cause of the nightmares.
This opening does two things well: establish a central identity trait of the narrator, and to create a mystery about what is causing these nightmares and why they keep coming.
12. Start with an Idea
Douglas Coupland, Hey Nostradamus
“I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in this world — spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss, and Mount McKinley — is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins. Even those of us who try to live a good and true life remain as far away from grace as the Hillside Strangler or any demon who ever tried to poison the village well. What happened that morning only confirms this.”
It’s rare to find a universal pronouncement that works well. But note that they only work when you get to the plot soon — this paragraph uses the funnel method where everything in the paragraph is funneling down toward that last sentence, the sentence which opens the action of the novel.
A beginning writer would try to write this paragraph but forget that last line, and it’s the last line which makes the paragraph work.
13. An All-Around Great Paragraph
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainy of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him ‘Doctor.'”
This is a very well balanced opening that is hitting on multiple levels.
- There’s a mystery: why does he always carry The Jungle Book? And why is this her earliest memory?
- You learn about the central relationship in the book: the narrator’s relationship to her grandfather.
- There are many sensual details that place you in a scene: the sound of the trolley, the feeling of dampness.
Some openings, like Hunter Thompson, only try to do one thing but do it well. This is an example of the opposite, of an opening packed with information, relationships, details, mystery, and everything else that you would want to orient you to what will happen in this book. It’s not super ambitious, but it’s very hard to do well.
14. Fire up the Emotion
Paul Harding, Enon
“Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.”
What a heartbreaking opening. It’s one of the all-time saddest openings to a novel.
And all this paragraph does is summarize what has happened. Most people die before their children, but his child has died on him. And what’s more, because of that death, he’s gotten divorced.
Other writers might start with the accident itself, in a scene, but this is a great arresting way to involve the reader’s sympathies immediately.
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ—and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim.”
There are so many emotions in this first paragraph. A boy who was the cause of a mother’s death, and a religious dedication.
15. Focus on the Name
Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa
“Urania. Her parents had done her no favor; her name suggested a planet, a mineral, anything but the slender, fine-featured woman with burnished skin and large, dark, rather sad eyes who looked back at her from the mirror. Urania! What an idea for a name. Fortunately nobody called her that anymore; now it was Uri, Miss Cabral, Ms. Cabral, Dr. Cabral. As far as she could remember, after she left Santo Domingo (or Ciudad Trujillo — when she left they had not yet restored the old name to the capital city), no one in Adrian, or Boston, or Washington, D.C., or New Yrok had called her Urania as they did at home and at the Santo Domingo Academy, where the sisters and her classmates pronounced with absolute correctness the ridiculous name inflicted on her at birth. Was it his idea or hers? Too late to find out, my girl; your mother was in heaven and your father condemned to a living death. You’ll never know. Urania! As absurd as insulting old Santo Domingo de Guzman by calling it Ciudad Trujillo. Could that have been her father’s idea too?”
Four repetitions of her name! Plus a list of her nicknames, a discussion of the strange origin of the name, and how her name fit her image.
By focusing on your main character’s name, you’re really starting the novel with character building, making the reader interested in the protagonist.
16. Establish the Rules of your World
P.D. James, The Children of Men
“Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. If the first reports are to be believed, Joseph Ricardo died as he had lived. The distinction, if one can call it that, of being the last human whose birth was officially recorded, unrelated as it was to any personal virtue or talent, had always been difficult for him to handle. And now he is dead.”
The concept of this novel is that at a certain point, everyone stopped having babies. No women could get pregnant any longer. And so the human race was facing extinction.
But it would be too obvious to start the novel by saying that.
Instead, it’s much better to approach it obliquely, by talking about death rather than birth. Specifically, by talking about the death of the last person born. Because really, this novel is about facing the death of humanity.
17. Start Your Plot
William Giraldi, Busy Monsters
“Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man. Gilliam and I were about to be married and her ex-beau of four years, Marvin Gluck — Virginia state trooper, boots and all — was heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon I’ll end all our lives.”
We have a mission: he’s going to kill somebody.
We have a set of relationships: An angry ex-boyfriend, an engaged couple.
We have some personalities: A crazy state trooper and an equally crazy narrator who thinks he’s going to kill the trooper.
This is how you start the plot of your novel right away.
18. Start With An Unusual Event
Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife. This woman casually closed the door behind her. In an oversized pale blue purse — Rema’s purse — she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn’t greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn’t like dogs at all. The hayfeverishly fresh scent of Rema’s shampoo was filling the air and through that brashness I squinted at this woman, and at that small dog, acknowledging to myself only that something was extraordinarily wrong.”
What happens when your wife has been “replaced” by someone who looks exactly like her, speaks exactly like her, and acts exactly like her?
Has she really been replaced, or is the narrator suffering some kind of psychotic break?
It’s not only a mystery, it’s also a very odd event. Who imagines their significant other has been replaced by an imposter?
19. Describe the Main Character Mysteriously
Philippe Claudel, The Investigation
“When the investigator left the train station, a fine rain mingled with melting snow greeted him. He was a small, slightly round fellow with thinning hair, and nothing about him, neither his clothes nor his expression, was remarkable. Anyone obliged to describe him — as part of a novel, for example, or in a criminal proceeding or judiciary testimony — would surely have found it difficult to give a detailed portrait of the man. The Investigator was, in a way, a disappearing person, no sooner seen than forgotten. His aspect was as insubstantial as fog, dreams, or an expelled breath, and in this he resembled billions of human beings.”
Now this is an anti-description paragraph, where Claudel is creating mystery by refusing to describe his main character. This only works because so many other books start by describing their main character and he’s playing against type.
By choosing a lack of details, rather than the exceptional details, he makes you wonder about this strangely commonplace man.
Han Kang, The Vegetarian
“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers—neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.”
Another character who is described as “unremarkable,” middling height, plain shoes, unremarkable walk. Almost everything about her is nondescript, which somehow makes being a vegetarian a surprising thing!
20. Use Dialect
Philipp Meyer, The Son
“It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it. I am not dying a Christian though my scalp is intact and if there is an eternal hunting ground, that is where I am headed. That or the river Styx. My opinion at this moment is my life has been far too short: the good I could do if given another year on my feet. Instead I am strapped to this bed, fouling myself like an infant.”
Can you hear the old-timey slang? The swinging rhythms and inverted syntax of a grumpy old man from the 1800s?
When you give your character a particular way of speaking, it almost doesn’t matter what they’re talking about.
You are drawing the reader into the novel by the sound of a particular voice, and that voice is giving them loads of information about the person telling them this story.
Fantastic article! Thank you for all of these suggestions. Although I write children’s picture books, I find these ideas useful. Beryl
You stole my reply completely. Including picture books.
This page is brilliant. The examples and your parsing them as to why and how they work… great choices and astute points. I’m going to my WIP novel’s first page to rev it up. Thank you.
Hi John! What a great idea for an article, and you obviously put a lot of work into it. I enjoyed it!
Excellent. Thanks Again. I am modifying my manuscript based on this and some of your other advice.
Great help! God bless you.
I so appreciate how thorough your posts are. I, too, am going back over the first paragraphs (there’s a false start, so I have two firsts) and taking a close look at those last lines!
I find your suggestions and advice given here truly priceless.
I am a writer/ poet and have over a dozen published books of fiction, poetry and in the genre of rational spirituality.
Whenever I can afford to, I wud love to hire such a profound writing professional.
Thank you . Truly impressed. Vijay Narain-Shankar. Writer.
Last year during the month of November I produced “the novel” in its ragged, staggering 60k word mess. This month I will do the editing and I thank you for this article to start me off.
What a great article – and nice choice of books. this was fascinating, and will keep my author mind thinking for a while.
Really useful stuff John, thanks much, your writings are a wonderful resource. You might want to correct what I hope is a typo. ‘Heroine’ has an ‘e’ on the end. My bad if that was deliberate by Thayil. You could just leave it there – reminds me of Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Commitments’. But I’m not going to let my pedantry stop me from absorbing all of this (and the ‘how not to start’ post) over several readings. More power to your elbow.
Hi Dan, thanks for the kind note. So that is not a typo! It’s a book about drug use, and they actually mean the drug heroin. A little wordplay.
Excellent article. To read several times! I am only on my second reading.
Loved this. Very useful. Have to adjust a little somewhere to take advantage of your wisdom. Thanks.
‘Lolita’ has an amazing opening that can be put under the ‘Focus on the Name’ category.
Yes, great point!
““Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Hey! Thanks for the article, it was extremely useful. I am currently working on my “Personal Project” and needed a way to start my product, so to start writing a novel. It’s a book about our corrupt society, responsibility, abuse of power, etc. Anyway thank you for writing this article in such detail, it actually motivated me to start writing.
I was surprised my opening paragraph embraced many of your suggestions. Except the last line. That is now changed, and has provided substantial attention grabbing emotion. Thank you so much !
I guess I am a ‘meats and potatoes’ wanna be writer. Meaning no disrespect, these opening paragraphs are like modern art; the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Are they interesting, yes. But they are long winded, lacking focus. Now, “Call me Ishmael” is a great opening line, or, ‘The impostor borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford.’ (Camino Island, John Grisham). Again, just my opinion.
A DAY LIKE TODAY just always starts differently, doesn’t it? There’s those mornings when you wake up when you notice even the most subtle of changes. And usually on those days, something huge happens.
You could wake up at an earlier time than usual, even by just a few minutes, and find out that you’ll meet your soulmate today. Alternatively, you could notice that you’ll need to stay a little longer after work today, and find out that the world is being crushed by an immortal deity. Even I noticed something different; upon waking up this morning, after coming up with the idea of writing about this very, very true story, everything’s been so different. See, even the tiniest things could be signs something’s…off about the morning you wake up, the tiniest things being foretellings of the things to come.
Even for someone as boring and unpredictable as Kiyoshi Saito.
How’s this opening paragraph? Any suggestions? Did I do good? I’m kind of a young writer. I’ve been writing for several years but I’m still learning.
Great start! I can tell from the first two sentences that something HUGE happened on the “today” in your story. I think you can tease that again in your closing line and juxtapose that big moment with the ordinariness of your protagonist, Kiyoshi. You kind of do that here in the last two sentences, but I think you could benefit from being more direct about it. As for the rest of your paragraph, I’m wondering WHY something big happens on the days when we notice something different. Is it the noticing that impacts future events, or is it the change itself that foreshadows it, even if it’s not noticed. Not something you necessarily need to answer, those are just my first thoughts as I read. I think you could trim and tighten some sentences up, but you have an intriguing start, and I hope the rest of the story pays off with revelations that make the mysterious coincidence you’ve pointed out worthy of the opening.
This “Mission” had great value for me. I keep sneaking up on a novel and have a great deal of it written in the form of scene cards. But I’ve rewritten the opening chapter at least a dozen times, so these first paragraphs were of great interest. I tried to read each one with an eye on whether I would want to read the book – and why – before reading your comments. Sometimes I saved your comments in my notes in hopes they will help me stop rewriting the first chapter. Again, thank you for what you do!