Andromeda: Open Strong–Learning from effective novel openings

If you want to mesmerize yourself
into the state of self-hypnosis required to write fiction, if you want to go
further and mesmerize your audience, if you want to get published and to be
  then you will have to learn how to
open strong.
I am not talking here about just a
quotable first line, a flashy premise or an easy hook. We can’t all run around
spouting clever generalities about happy families all being alike—I don’t think
they are, actually—and getting things started with an explosion or a dead body is
not necessarily the best way to a
reader’s heart. (It may depend on what follows, of course.)
For me, a novel opening isn’t just
about demonstrating a hyper-facility with words. It shouldn’t be about tricking
the reader, either, by startling him with maximum action or unearned emotion.
I’ve written and tossed away openings that grabbed readers but did not
accurately foretell the style and themes of the book to follow. False
advertising doesn’t work in the long run.
I’m more interested—and hope you
are, too—in how first paragraphs and first pages set a pattern, plant seeds,
develop or subvert genre expectations, build a world, and establish essential
aesthetic priorities which will vary from author to author and novel to novel.
I’m interested in the contract between writer and reader, and how it is worded,
and when it is finally signed: generally earlier than we dare to realize. I’m
interested in novel openings that appeal easily and openings that dare to challenge
and complicate, because that can be a part of the contract, too.
Here are three strong openings
from recent, award-winning literary novels which also happened to be
commercially successful. These first lines show variety and decisiveness, and they
model how even a single sentence can set the stage for all that is to follow.
The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian
and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the
Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran.  (Andre Dubus III,
House of Sand and Fog.)
THE PLAY—for which Briony had designed the
posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding
screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was
written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a
breakfast and a lunch. (Ian McEwan,
Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at
the foundation. (Louise Erdrich,

Let’s think about how the examples above make us sit up and take
notice, in a way that not only readers but also agents and editors immediately

The first thing is voice. The bitter, ethnically conscious and
grammatically distinct narrator in House
of Sand and Fog
speaks nothing like the breathlessly excited,
detail-oriented narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement,
or like the more measured yet still purposeful narrator of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. We don’t know time
periods or what characters look like or what precisely is happening—yet—and we
don’t need to. The voices alone promise specificity, nuance, and humanity. To
voice we can add other basic decisions about POV and even tense.

The second thing is conflict. And not just random conflict that will blow
itself out as quickly and pointlessly as a bad Hollywood car chase, but an
essential peek into the novel’s story and themes. There is a sense of
sufficient novelistic scope in these lines, even the syntactically simplest of
the three.

The third thing we might call narrative
. In each case, the
author is clear about where we should focus our attention. We are not being
overloaded, confused, or dazzled. We are being given just enough information
and invited to participate in the significant moment that is unfolding. If we
trust these authors, we will wager that every word matters and that there is significance
beyond the surface details. Our cognitive facilities are on alert, ready for
clues about how to interpret what follows.

By the way, titles of
novels are sometimes delightfully ambiguous, but in this case, the titles are
surprisingly clear, working alongside first sentences to tell us exactly what
these novels are about.

House of Sand and Fog. A Persian man with a chip on his shoulder is
determined to dish out everything he has been served. From the first sentence,
we can guess that ethnic tensions, pride and desperation will motivate his choices, bringing
multiple characters into collision. (Title and spoiler in one: it’s about a

Atonement. A girl, obsessed, will insist on the seeing the world as a
play. We can imagine that her desire to control, direct, and even narrate her
own particular vision of things will have terrible consequences. (Title and
spoiler, example two: atonement will be pursued.)

Round House. Another person—a boy, as it turns out, though we can’t tell
that yet—will tell us about the first moment when he noticed that his home (and
his family) started crumbling. Symbolism will be called upon. Invaders will
come in many forms. (Dare I mention the title gives us a hint where the main
action will take place?)

Andromeda Romano-Lax
is the author of The Spanish Bow,
published in 11 languages, as well as The
and a forthcoming novel, Behave.
She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage
low-residency MFA program. Her website is Novel openings will be part of the discussion in her newest 49 Writers class, Revision Intensive, a 6-week online class that begins April 4. She will also be teaching about novel openings in her online class, Open Strong, April 25-May 3, offered by Antioch University’s new Inspiration 2 Publication program (not affiliated with 49 Writers). 

Scroll to Top