How to Write the Beginning of a Book

The start of a book is very important. Writers count on it to call the attention of the reader and to hook them so that they continue reading until the end. If you’ve ever wondered how to write the beginning of a book, stay with us: in this article, we’ll tell you what to do (and what not to do). And, as a plus, we’ll go over some of the best opening lines of literature.

How to Start Writing a Book: Goals

Have you ever asked yourself how to start writing a book? Well first, a maxim: there are no recipes for writing a good first paragraph. In fact, it’s best not to obsess over it, since you can rewrite it as many times as you need. However, we can’t deny that there are a series of elements that the start of a novel must almost always have. Let’s go into them.

Hooking the Reader

If you want to learn how to write the first chapter of a novel, you have to know that a book has to be captivating from the beginning. That’s why we recommend you include a contrast or a provocation that leaves the reader wanting to know more. Below, we are going to see some examples of first paragraphs that don’t leave anyone indifferent:

  • «Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the old people’s home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday.» (The Stranger, by Albert Camus)
  • «The first thing they did was show their boobs.» (Kentukis, by Samanta Schweblin)

Defining the Tone of the Narration

One way to start writing a book is by setting the tone for the genre or atmosphere that the reader is going to find in the rest of the novel. For example:

  • «The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.» (A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness). In this case, the reader is placed in a fantastic universe, and the fact that we are in front of a children’s book is revealed.
  • «As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.» (The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka). Here, we are presented with the absurd.
  • «It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Irbane. I imagine that the trial is still in everyone’s mind and that no further information about myself is necessary.» (The tunnel, by Ernesto Sábato). Sábato begins the book with a phrase that reveals a dark atmosphere. 

Setting the Style

A first paragraph is a great way to let the reader know some elements, such as the language we use, the pace of the narration, or even the complexity or simplicity of the sentences. In other words, the first paragraph sets the style. Let’s look at two examples of very different styles:

  • «It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.» (Love in the Times of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez)
  • «You told me I talked in my sleep.» (The Woman from Uruguay, by Pedro Mairal)

What to Do (and What Not to Do) in the First Paragraphs of a Book

Now that we’ve seen the most important objectives the beginning of a book has, it’s time to go into detail and talk about a series of tips on what to do and what not to do when sitting down to write the beginning of a novel.

Setting Something in Motion

Although descriptions are very important, the first paragraph may not be the best place to paint a detailed portrait of the walls of the protagonist’s room. Unless, of course, those walls have a certain importance in the plot. It’s good to start the book with something that is in motion:

  • «Stephen pulled up the collar of his coat as he walked briskly along the platform.» (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie) 
  • «Life changes fast.» (The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion)

Of course, there’s no need to narrate a car chase or horse race; sometimes the movement can be subtle, like closing a window. Or, as in the following examples, it could be a sound:

  • “The locker room was filled with shouts, echoes, and the subterranean sound of showers splashing on tile.” (Carrie, by Stephen King)
  • «The Espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.»(The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie).

Don’t Speak About the Weather… Unless You Have To

It’s not recommended that the first paragraph of the book narrates the weather conditions. Except, of course, it’s justified, as in the following example:

  • «The night is deep: it’s freezing over the Park.» (Las malas, by Camila Sosa Villada)

Sosa Villada’s novel is a denunciation of the marginal situation of trans women. Thus, it’s important to include references to the weather, to emulate a harsh winter out in the open.

Dosing The Information

In the desire to present the reader with the entire universe you created, you run the risk of overwhelming them. The best thing is to dose the information, so that the reader can process it. That’s why it’s not recommended to describe the entire universe in the first paragraph; giving a few small hints is fine. 

Can you imagine if Tolkien had tried to condense the entire mythology of Middle-earth in the first paragraph of The Hobbit? Luckily, he didn’t, and he managed to give the readers a first glimpse:

  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The hobbit, by JRR Tolkien)

Better to Narrate Than to Explain

Instead of explaining, it’s best if the reader can interpret the emotions, feelings and actions of the characters. So, if you want to portray a deeply angry woman, it’s advisable to show her screaming or knocking the furniture, instead of simply saying «Mary was very angry» or «Mary was feeling a deep anger». This advice works both for the start of a novel and for the rest of the book. 

Don’t Tell Us How the Main Character Gets Up

The narrator that works as an alarm clock is boring. Showing how the protagonist gets out of bed, brushes their teeth and prepares breakfast is one of the greatest clichés in literature. We all get up, brush our teeth and have breakfast—you’d better get straight to the action. 

To Sum Up: Let It Flow!

How to start writing my book? Well, as we already said, there are no recipes. Although there are some elements that you can take into account, don’t make too much fuss: it’s best to let the first paragraph flow, but with the certainty that we can go back to the beginning as many times as necessary. Don’t let the start of the book hold you back: you can always correct it, edit it, adjust it and refine it

If you are still thinking about how to start writing your book, or if you have thought of a plot but you don’t know how to put it on paper and turn your ideas into a book, do not hesitate to contact us: in Palabra we offer the creative writing services you need.

Translated by: @florabosch

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