The Indie Novella Writing Course
From Lesson 1 - Openings
This first session is about where to start when it comes both to editing and to writing a novel. Let’s begin at the beginning. Your opening pages should exemplify all the essential elements of novel writing – characterization, point of view, style, structure etc. – and within those pages, you lay out what your novel is and where the novel is going. This is what the reader will use to ask the all-important question; do I want to read on?
What makes a memorable opening?
Consider 5 novels; Julian Barnes The Sense of An Ending, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, David Nicholls’ Us, Celeb Azumah Nelson's Open Water, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. All contemporary literature, all either listed for prizes or million sellers, and all with their opening chapters on Amazon with the Look Inside option.
The Sense of An Ending begins with the phrase, ‘I remember’, followed by a series of bullet points, and the paragraph ends with the phrase, ‘This isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’ Hence the concept of the unreliable narrator is hit home while also, very briefly, laying out some information that we assume will have relevance later in the story – hooks. What it also does is allude to what the novel is. Memory and time, and the concept that what we remember may not be what actually occurred.
Eleanor Oliphant on the other hand begins with ‘when people ask me what I do I tell them I work in an office.’ The first page uses this phrase to sum up who Eleanor Oliphant is – characterization made clear right from the get-go – and the first page ends with the reader coming away knowing Eleanor is in her early thirties, has had something of an abusive past, and considers herself as quite anonymous to those around her. This effectively lays out what the novel is about – Eleanor Oliphant and her character arc.
Swimming Home initially begins with a short passage, out of time, and the contradiction of a threat verses a declaration of love – ‘When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.’ A car is swerving, an affair has taken place, and all both parties want is to go home safely, though the reader is immediately asked the question what Kitty believes home to be.
In Us, we see that the first page is also the first chapter. David Nicholls uses an alternative structure with numerous short chapters, the first lasting only a few paragraphs beginning with the narrator being awoken to begin a hunt for burglars in his home only to return to bed to find out that he had actually been woken by his wife because she wanted to ask him for a divorce.
In Open Water, the novel begins with a prologue. Prologues are common in detective or suspense novels, but here Caleb Azumah Nelson uses it as a tool to drop the reader into something, as he puts it. There is an intensity about the writing, and a little mystery. 'You two are in something.' 'You told her not to look at you.' There is something happening, or something has happened, and we are given clues and snippets of what this something is that we are in.
So, to answer the question what makes a memorable opening, you get an idea of what the book is about. After only the first page, you know what story you are in. But to be more precise, the reader experiences something of the central conflict.
Each of our five novels introduce conflict early on. Barnes, the conflict of memory and the importance of those out of context bullet points. Levy, the beginning of an affair and what could be a car crash – figuratively and literally. Nicholls, not just an impending divorce but how the narrator chose to mishear his wife and search the house for burglars first. In Open Water we are in the midst of that something. Honeyman’s, Eleanor herself and internal conflict of who Eleanor is.
There may be no rules when it comes to writing, however bringing your reader’s attention to conflict straightaway is definitely a skill. We use these four examples to demonstrate this pattern. Sometimes we, as authors, believe we need to fill our opening pages with backstory or characterization in order to lead our reader to the conflict – the heart of our novel – but being able to introduce it during your early pages is attention grabbing and has your reader taking the next step in their journey and reading on.
A couple of words of warning, however. A significant amount of contemporary fiction introduces conflict early by essentially giving away the ending before starting at the beginning. SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is an interesting example as it takes you into the story immediately – a woman remembers going to sleep in her twenties and wakes up thirty years later with no recollection of where she is or what has happened in between. Watson uses the technique of jumping straight in at a point in time close to what is actually the end of the novel and after the opening chapters, moves to back the start. This has become a very successful literary technique as it also introduces suspense and tension early on. However, it may not be appropriate in all situations and building the tension so early and then asking the reader to essentially start again can be somewhat off-putting. Again, there are no rules in novel writing. Some readers love this approach, others don’t. We chose our four examples largely because of how quickly they introduce their story and then set about telling their story. Always do what suits your novel, but do remember, conflict in some form is important in opening your novel.