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Monday, July 30

In the Beginning: Which Type of Opening Works Best?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening line of your novel is probably the most important line you'll write. (no pressure). You hear this all the time, and sadly it's true. How you start your novel determines how many readers (and agents) will keep reading it. Do you start with dialog, description, or internalization? Considering how few options you have for opening lines, it's amazing how hard they can be to write.

I've talked plenty of times about the hook aspect, but today, let's look at the three basic types of openings. Most advice will tell you never start with dialog or description, but there are books out there that do it and do it well. So why do they work when another book doesn't?

Because they do what a good opening line is supposed to do: make the reader want to read the second line. And that's what matters most.

Opening With Dialog
This means any line that has someone speaking out loud. They can be speaking to another person or to themselves, as long as the dialog is actually spoken.

The main reason folks advise against starting with dialog 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.

"Is that you?"
If you think about what a good opening line is supposed to do, this ought to work. It starts with something going on, poses a question, and hints at a mystery. But is there anything here that actually makes you 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. We know it's Bob, and that he's just heard something that bothers him, he suspects it could be someone he knows but isn't sure, and now he's arming himself. Is Bob a good guy or a bad guy? Is the person he hears a good guy or a bad guy? You may not know the specifics yet, but you have enough information to understand the basics of what's going on.

Let's look at an actual opening line that uses dialog well:
"Sam has it. Question is, how bad?" (Jerk, California, Jonathan Friesen)
It's dialog, 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's got to be sick, but with what and, again, how bad?) It's also a great opening because I know this story is going to revolve around whatever Sam has. This is going to be important to the book. (and it is)

Tips on Opening With Dialog:
  • Provide enough context to understand the dialog, even if some details are vague
  • Make the dialog 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
(More on dialog here)

Opening With Internalization
This means any line that shows the narrator musing or thinking about something.

Internalization gives readers that personal connection right away, and often sets the scene. It's probably the most common type of opening you'll find, because it's easy to fulfill the "good opening" requirements. It grounds the reader, it offers something going on, and it makes you curious. 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 know right away this person is dealing with getting punched in the face in some way. I don't know why yet, but I want to. It's that "a singular experience" that really sells this for me. The judgment of that, the voice, the attitude, makes me like this person.

Be wary of internalization that's let your POV wax philosophical for a long time. Just hearing someone think about a random topic doesn't hook any better than ungrounded dialog. If they're thinking or making an observation, let it be about something relevant to what's happening to them.

Tips on Opening 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)
(More on internalization basics here)

Opening With Description
This means any line that describes something, be it a tree, a bank robbery or a person.

Setting the scene makes sense, and is good advice, but starting with an inanimate object pushes back the time it takes to make a connection with your reader. There's no character (unless you're describing a person), no sense of something about to happen.

But that doesn't mean description can't work as a strong opening. Description that also tells the reader 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. 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 With Description:
  • Use your POV's voice
  • Offer something unexpected or unusual in how you describe
  • Use the description to set the tone of the scene or novel
(More on how much you need to describe your setting here)

No matter which opening you choose, strive to make it as compelling as possible. Think about the various options and what each might gain you. If your narrator is witty or funny, internalization might work well. If the narrator is facing an unusual situation or person, dialog 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.

It all depends on what you want to accomplish with that opening.

(Here are seven deadly sins in a first chapter and how to fix them)

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?


  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.