E.L. Doctorow said this in a Paris Review Writers at Work interview: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’m sure, like me, you’ve felt that fog as you contemplate starting a new project. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
For novelists, the journey through that fog can seem endless and, quite frankly, intimidating. Here, then, are five ways to open a novel along with what each requires to be successful.
The Water with Lemon Opening: This is an opening that relies on a slice of life grounded in commonplace details with just a spark of urgency to make things interesting. Often that urgency comes from the main character and the complicated motivations they have for putting themselves into action as the book opens. I’ve written before about Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive, Again, which opens with Jack Kennison driving to Portland, Maine, to buy a bottle of whiskey because he doesn’t want to risk running into Olive Kitteridge in their hometown of Crosby. A simple opening with a character driven by the desire to avoid someone. That little spark of tension—the zing of the lemon in the water, if you will—is enough to keep us reading. For this strategy to succeed, the writer has to first catalog the important details and then be able to create round characters who can find the significance in the ordinary.
There’s No Place Like Home: This is an opening that trusts in Eudora Welty’s belief that all fiction relies on the authoritative depiction of setting. The novelist must have an intimate knowledge of that setting, not only the facts of it, but also how those facts create a certain atmosphere and make possible certain characters and actions.
The Hello-Goodbye Opening: Sometimes a novel opens with an arrival or a departure. Each must be significant enough to matter to the main character, to set them on a course that challenges and ultimately changes them. The arrival or the departure becomes the engine that propels the narrative. To succeed with this strategy, the novelist must understand the cause and effect that the structure requires.
The Oh, Shit! Opening: Starting in the midst of a huge problem to be solved is one way to draw the reader into the world of the novel. The trick here is to open with an urgent situation while not making the writing melodramatic. Paying close attention to the particular details always helps the novelist to avoid the maudlin or the sensational. Antonya Nelson’s novel, Bound, for example, opens with the focus on a woman trapped in her car after an accident.
The Just a Moment Opening: This is the sort of opening common to prologues. A novel opens by creating suspense. It lets the reader know up front that something momentous has happened. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History opens like this: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” To utilize this strategy you first have to have an event of notable significance. Then you have to trust that you can maintain your reader’s curiosity through the plot that will eventually take them back to where the book begins.
These are only a few ways to open a novel. I encourage you to read widely so you can identify others. No matter how you decide to begin, the most important thing is that you use a strategy that arouses the curiosity of both you and the reader. The prospect of filling the blank pages can be a frightening one, but we can demystify it to the point that we feel comfortable following the trail as it goes, or to put it another way, letting the novel write itself.