The opening words of a novel are a potential reader’s introduction to a world they can choose to enter or exit.
Their decision usually depends on how connected they feel to the person they’re reading about, and the situation this person is facing.
As writers, how do we make these elements of our story interesting enough to convince potential readers to enter the world we’ve imagined and hang in there for the duration of the novel?
One key element is: theme.
It’s easy to brush theme off as an aspect of storytelling that comes along later in a book.
But some of the most memorable novels begin with action, descriptions, and dialogue that highlight the entire book’s theme.
For example, Pride and Prejudice’s famous first line is, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This opening sentence is witty and intriguing, and it highlights several main themes within Pride & Prejudice- themes that center around how social class, wealth, and gender relate to the business of marriage and to the magic of finding true love.
The first line of the novel hints at all of this, and then guides the reader through a love story that expounds on the aforementioned themes.
This is part of what makes Pride & Prejudice great, the book's major themes are consistently highlighted- from the opening sentence, to the final chapter.
One of the reasons why this form of writing is so palatable to readers is because it establishes continuity and creates a pattern. Just as most of the songs that we find ourselves drawn to have melodies or refrains that, though played with various instruments and tweaked at pivotal moments, are essentially repeated throughout the song, most of the books that we're drawn to have a theme that's woven into every major plot point from beginning to end.
Essentially, humans like patterns, because they're easy to understand. They just make sense.
So, as writers, how do we apply all of this information about "themes" and "patterns" when we're constructing our opening chapters?
Well, we take a moment to consider what’s at the heart of our manuscript - is the action centered around a battle of good and evil? Or, is centered around a thematic perspective like, 'No one is truly trustworthy,' or 'most people are good at heart'?
We have to find the theme, or the heart of our story, and then allude to this theme in the opening chapter.
All that said, if you’re on your first draft of your novel, it may be a good idea to avoid worrying about wording the opening chapter perfectly.
This is because, when you’re on your first draft, your main concern is to enjoy writing the novel to completion; don’t worry about editing anything until the story is done.
Once you’ve written the last word of the last chapter, then you can go back to Chapter One and begin editing.
I mentioned Pride & Prejudice as an example of a novel with a great opening line. But, what about your favorite opening lines? Are there any novels you’ve recently read that have amazing first chapters? Or, have you written a book with a first chapter that you’re proud of?
Please feel free to let me know in the comment section below, I’m always up for reading a new book!
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