The Indie Novella Writing Course
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?
As described in the introduction, there are no mistakes when it comes to writing. What can seem awful to one reader or critic, can be seen as ingenious to another. Likewise, there is no ‘wrong way’ to open a novel and there is hence no ‘correct’ approach to writing an opening chapter. However, there are some approaches which work better than others and some themes that crop up time and again which pique a reader’s interest and have them ready to make that all important time commitment.
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.