Wednesday, October 11, 2023

In the Beginning: Which Type of Opening Works Best in a Novel?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Opening lines are your novel's first impression on a reader. As long as it's a good impression, how you get there doesn't matter. 

The opening line of your novel is probably the most important line you'll write (no pressure). How you start your novel determines how many readers (or agents and editors) will keep reading it. And there are a lot of opinions about what that opening line should be.

Do you start with dialogue, description, or internalization?

Each one has a horror story associated with it about the dangers of using that type to start your novel. "Don't open a story with dialogue," or "Never start with description," or "Opening with internalization is just navel gazing."

Truth is, the type of opening line doesn't matter. It's how you start the story that's important. 

Let's look at these three basic types of opening lines.

Opening a Novel with Dialogue

When done poorly, opening a novel with dialogue can indeed leave readers lost and wondering what's going on, but that's true of any poorly done opening line.

The main reason folks advise against starting with dialogue is that there's no context for the line. 

Readers have no idea who's speaking or who they're speaking to, so they feel ungrounded and confused. Confusion is not what you want readers to feel when they start your book.

For Example:
"Is that you?"
In a general sense of what a good opening line should do, this ought to work, right? It starts with something going on, poses a question, and hints at a mystery.

But is there anything here that actually makes you curious. let alone care? Probably not, because it's so generic. This could be anyone anywhere, and there's no sense that anything is wrong or about to happen. Until you get more information, there's nothing to draw you into the story.

So let's add some:
"Is that you?" Bob said, drawing his gun.
This won't win any awards, but at least now we have some context to ground readers and set the scene a bit. We know the speaker is Bob, and that he's just heard something that made him wary enough to draw a gun, he suspects it could be someone he knows but isn't sure.

It also poses specific questions. Is Bob a good guy or a bad guy? Is the person he hears a good guy or a bad guy? Why is Bob worried? What's about to happen that requires a gun?

Readers may not know the specifics yet, but they have enough information to understand the basics of what's going on, and want to see what happens next.

Let's look at a real opening line that uses dialogue well:
"Sam has it. Question is, how bad?" (Jerk, California, Jonathan Friesen)
It's dialogue, but it has context (they're talking about Sam), it poses a question (what does Sam have and how bad is it?), and it makes you curious about what's being said (he must be sick, but with what and, again, how bad?) It's also a great opening because we can guess this story is going to revolve around whatever Sam has, and that's going to be important to the book (and it is).

Tips on Opening a Novel with Dialogue:

  • Provide enough context to understand the dialogue, even if some details are vague
  • Make the dialogue interesting even if you know nothing about what's going on yet
  • Attach it to a person in some way so the reader feels grounded
  • Make it matter to the overall story
Dialogue can be a powerful start to a story, as long as it doesn't leave readers lost and confused.

(Here's more on Writing Dialogue: 4 Ways to Avoid Floating Head Syndrome!)

Opening a Novel with Internalization

A bad internalization line is often the start of navel gazing

A character is just metaphorically staring at their navel and thinking about things that really have nothing to do with the novel and aren't offering readers anything to draw them into the story.

For example (and yes, this is more than one line, but for navel gazing, you need to see how it gets out of hand to see the problem):
I wasn't the type of person to worry, but after the day I'd had, I had every reason to. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't my fault, and it wasn't anything I could do about, so why worry, but I still couldn't shake it. I was going to have to deal with this sooner or later. Later was better. Much later. Not that I was going to get that chance. 
There are some half-decent bits hiding in this mess, but aside from a vague sense of something wrong, there's nothing here that shows readers what the actual problem is. Odds are, you're thinking "Fine, fine, bad day, get to the point already."

But good internalization offers readers a character with something to say, and what they have to say is compelling enough to pull readers right into the story

It grounds readers, offers something going on, and makes them curious to know more. It also typically shows the voice of your narrator and something about that character.
Getting punched hard in the face is a singular experience. (Godless, Pete Hautman)
I bought this book based on this line alone. There's a great sense of character here, and I knew right away this person is dealing with a situation that ended very badly. I don't know why he got punched yet, but I want to. It's "a singular experience" that really sells this for me. The judgment of that, the voice, the attitude, makes me like this person.

Tips on Opening a Novel with Internalization:

  • Use the character's voice
  • Offer an unusual or unexpected idea
  • Have the musing be about something actively going on (as opposed to a general thought)
Be wary of internalization that's let your point of view character wax philosophical for a long time. 

Just hearing someone think about a random topic doesn't hook any better than ungrounded dialogue. If they're thinking or making an observation, let it be about something relevant to what's happening to them.

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

Opening a Novel with Description

Setting the scene by describing where readers are and what's going on makes sense, but not if it robs readers of a chance to connect with a character.

A lovely description of a mountain range can be well written even if it's boring.

For example:
White peaks soared above the mottled greens and browns of the tree-line. 
I doubt this makes anyone curious to read on. Mountains, so what? There's nothing here to pique curiosity or pose a story question.

But that doesn't mean description can't work as a strong opening. Description that also tells readers about the narrator, or surprises the reader in some way, can be very effective.
The sky was the color of cat vomit. (Uglies, Scott Westerfield)
Right away the voice of the narrator comes across in this offbeat description. Who compares the sky to cat vomit? It's unexpected and intriguing, even though it's someone describing the color of the sky. I don't know much about this story yet, but I can already tell the narrator doesn't think too highly of her world, and is probably a bit pessimistic.

Tips on Opening a Novel with Description:

  • Use your point of view character's voice
  • Offer something unexpected or unusual in how you describe
  • Use the description to set the tone of the scene or novel
When opening with description, make it something that tells readers more than just what something looks like. 

(Here's more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

No matter which opening you choose, strive to make it as compelling as possible. Think about how each option benefits your particular story.

If your narrator is witty or funny, internalization might work well. If the narrator is facing an unusual situation or person, dialogue could be the best opening. Or if there's a scene or item that will surprise the reader and challenge their assumptions, description could be the way to go.

Don't worry about the type of opening line, just make it a great one. Remember--the only job a good opening line has is to make readers want to read the second line.

Do you consider which type of line works best for your story or do you write it on instinct? Which type of opening do you prefer? Does it change by genre?

Originally published July 2012. Last updated October 2023.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. For me, first drafts are written by instinct (because I don't know enough about the story yet). Later drafts the opening gets a lot of thought.

    I think my favorite opening line is from `The Changeling Prince' by Vivian Vande Velde: 'Weiland woke up naked, in the snow, in a part of the forest he didn't recognize, with blood in his mouth.'

    You can tell right away that something is seriously wrong, the story is going to be a dark one, this character is in danger. I love when the opening tells you exactly what kind of story you're getting into.

  2. Two of my opening lines that work rather well according to my writing group are dialogue and internalization. I didn't really consider which type of opening to go with for either. The scene just sort of determined it.

    For the dialogue opening, I already knew the MC in my head and the scene I wanted to introduce her in. So I chose to hint at what she'd been putting up with for awhile by having insults shouted at her and then showing her reaction. Plus the insults also hint at her description, saving me from having to work it in elsewhere.

    For the internalization, that was pure instinct. I didn't even have a story yet. The line popped into my head while trying to come up with a story for a contest and bam! I had an MC, her mental attitude, and her situation and setting.

    I don't really have a preference in reading on what type of opening to use. It just depends on the story and how it's written. I've read good and bad examples of all three types. But in writing, I lean more to dialogue and internalization. Description is my weak area.

  3. When I first started writing, my natural inclination was to open with dialogue, but I tend to open with description now to set the tone.

    My favorite opening sentence with dialogue is from Ender's Game: "I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."

    One of my other favorite openings actually comes from a book I dislike, Catcher in the Rye. Although I find Holden tiresome at best, the opening capture's the character's voice so well: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

  4. Wow, it's like you read my mind! I've been getting conflicting opinions on this. I started my novel with internalization and was then given advice to start with dialogue, so I changed it. I didn't like it enough, so I changed it back. This writing business is NOT as easy as those outside of it may think! lol

    Since this is my first novel, I want to make sure it's as perfect as it can be before submitting. As a result, it has taken me MONTHS to edit and re-edit. By now, I'm sick of reading my own story! :)

  5. I've seen it done effectively all three ways depending on the story. For me, I don't write description well so know I probably wouldn't start a story that way. Thanks for the tips.

  6. I don't really get the issue with dialog leaving the reader ungrounded and confused because there's no context. In the examples given for internalization and description there's no more context than with the dialog. There's nothing indicating who is thinking, punching, getting punched, describing the sky, whatever.

    I see the lack of context in any of them as stimulating curiosity to find out what the context is, if it's done well.

    There's only so much context that can be put into the opening line anyway. Surely even today's impatient readers will allow you a few paragraphs to develop the context.

  7. I decide on instinct, but openings are easy for me. It's keeping the story going that gets me. I am a visual writer, so typically I have the entire scene pictured in my head so vividly it's simply a matter of describing it.

  8. I always find this topic befuddling. The fact that the very first sentence must hold the power of decision-making makes every other sentence so less important. Every sentence in a story holds equal weight at keeping the reader entranced, or should. What if the first sentence was a real ringer and the next a dud. Then does the reader have permission to quit?
    I have worked at a book store and seen how the human animal interacts with the overwhelming choice of stories on the shelves. Most people flip to some middle page and find a voice, a tone they admire. Only nerdy bookys depend on the first line like it was god’s own hand writing. Isn’t dependance on the first line more of a marketing scholastic wonky thing imposed by literary professors and publishing houses? Isn’t it a thing for writers to blame if their book don’t sell?
    I may be an outlier but I have never bought a book because of the first line nor put one down because of it. I give a book ten pages at least. And, I purchase because of the authors voice found some where in the middle. Better, I believe, for writers to give every line equal effort, and give the poor first line a break.

    1. Thanks for the bookstore-perspective there! I've never bought a book that way, but every reader has their own preferences. I've never put down a book for a ho-hum first line or page, but I've certainly set aside ones that were horribly written.

      The way I see it, it's another opportunity to grab the readers and get them hooked on the book. Will every reader be grabbed that way? Of course not, but why waste the opportunity? A great first line/page/chapter sets the tone and the expectations for the whole book, and getting off to a great start just makes it more likely the reader will buy the book and enjoy it.

      Nothing about writing is set in stone or a rule that must be followed. It's a tool to help strengthen the story and improve the chances of hooking a reader, agent, or editor.

      If a writer doesn't think first lines matter, then they are free to do what they want with them--same as every other word they write :)

  9. Hmmm, that was Janice replying. It seems my log in has gotten messed up.