Read a Book to Begin a Book - Writer's Digest

Read a Book to Begin a Book

Stuck trying to find a way to begin your next story? Try gleaning inspiration from these 10 famous novels that break the usual rules of writing in their first lines.
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According to literary science(1), completing a novel lands somewhere between climbing Mount Everest and extinguishing the sun in terms of difficulty. Note the gerund(2) in that sentence: Completing a novel is hard. Beginning a novel is easy. If you’re like me, you probably started about five novels this morning, all of which collapsed into ruin by around the third sentence.

Read a Book to Begin a Book

Like everything else in this business, there’s no shortage of advice on every aspect of writing a novel—and most of that advice centers on what not to do. And, as always, most of that advice contradicts all the other advice, leaving you no closer to a finished novel.(3)

As usual, books are the answer. The best piece of advice any writer can receive is “read,” after all—read widely, read continually, and take notes as you do so.(4) Here are 10 successful, well-reviewed, and award-winning novels that begin in creative, interesting ways—often ways you’ve been advised are “forbidden”—that you can steal and try out on your next attempt.

10 Ways to Kick Off a Novel

Novel: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

What You Can Learn: Yes, Virginia, you can start a novel with dialogue.(5)

If you’ve ever investigated the supposed rules surrounding starting a novel, you’ve probably been told you can’t start one with dialogue, because it distances the reader immediately: Since we haven’t met any of the characters or received any context, the exchange will be meaningless and confusing.

Except, you know, the dialogue can do a lot of work without any of those things. Virginia Woolf knew a thing or two about writing, and the first lines of To the Lighthouse do a ton of work:

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

No, you have no idea what Mrs. Ramsay is referring to, or whom she’s speaking to. But you already have a sense of who Mrs. Ramsay is based on the series of conditions she puts on her acquiescence. Additionally, dialogue like this sparks curiosity—what might happen tomorrow if it’s fine? The reader is hooked.(6)

Novel: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

What You Can Learn: Prologues can work. So can confusing the heck out of your reader.

Infinite Jest is a divisive novel. You either find Wallace’s post-modern classic to be confusing and overly mannered, the endless footnotes unnecessarily clever,(7) and all the tennis stuff tedious—or you think it’s genius. One thing it proves, though, is that you can absolutely kick your book off with a prologue.

The first section of Infinite Jest isn’t explicitly called a prologue, but that’s how it functions. In it, a young man describes a bizarre college interview he attempts to get through despite suffering from a mysterious and disturbing affliction that makes communication ... difficult.

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

When you first read the book you have no idea what’s going on, but Wallace uses this to set his tone—and to leave breadcrumbs that will become meaningful later. The lesson here is to not overthink things. Your readers can handle a little postmodern trickery—and a prologue.

Novel: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

What You Can Learn: You don’t have to treat your plot twists like state secrets.

Personally, I don’t worry about spoilers; if a story is any good, it will work even after you know the twist. But many writers worry about keeping plot twists and other surprises hidden from readers while still playing fair.

But then you read Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History, where she reveals every detail of the central murder on page one. Practically in the first sentence.

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.

It works, because the real mystery—the really interesting stuff—is the why, not the how or the who. Next time you’re struggling to begin your novel, ask yourself if it’s in part because you’re trying to be clever about your secrets—then try a version where you just blab those secrets right away. It might give your narrative the burst of energy it needs.

Novel: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

What You Can Learn: First chapters can be short and all about tone.

There’s a school of thought out there that first chapters can’t be short and have to accomplish certain things. They’re supposed to introduce the characters, set the scene, and kick the plot into motion. Now, very few of us are Vladimir Nabokov,(8) but we can learn from his sensuous, dream-like first chapter of Lolita, which begins

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

The chapter continues in that vein for 131 more words. It’s short, it conveys no plot or setting work and precious little character work—but what it does do is set the tone of feverish gluttony and selfish obsession. You too can start your novel with an impression instead of a concrete recitation of details.

Novel: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

What You Can Learn: Second person isn’t a sin, and you can have a standalone POV.

If you want to shock your writer friends at the next gathering, tell them you’re writing a book in the second person.(9) If you want to cause pandemonium, tell them you’re going to switch back and forth between the first, second, and third person. Which is exactly what Erin Morgenstern does in The Night Circus. Not only that, but her first chapter is in the second person, which is just showing off, and it’s a standalone POV that is abandoned immediately.

You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do.
The Night Circus page four.

Morgenstern manages this trick because she uses her tools purposefully: She knows it’s vital to her story that the reader be put into the correct mood immediately, and the direct address takes control over what you’re feeling as you read it—there’s no room for interpretation (or misinterpretation). So if you’ve got the urge to play around with grammatical person in your novel, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not allowed.(10)

Novel: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What You Can Learn: You don’t have to dive immediately into experiments.

In terms of beginnings, Moby Dick is a hot mess. Sure, “Call me Ishmael” might be the most famous opening line in history, but it’s not technically the opening line; Melville originally began with two dull chapters explaining the minutiae of whales and the 19 century. On top of that, the first chapter of the actual story (which begins with that famous line) is misleading; after reading it you might assume you’re about to read a story about an adventure Ishmael had; after all, he says that he’s experiencing a “damp, drizzly November in my soul” and that his restless nature is telling him it’s “high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.” And you are about to read just such an adventure! Except this is a story about obsession and whaling (oh so much whaling).(11) Ishmael is more of an observer than a protagonist, and Melville is going to get really crazy up in here as the story progresses. But you’d never know it from these first few chapters.

And that’s your lesson: If you’re planning an experimental, slightly crazy novel you might think you have to be crazy and experimental from the first line—but you don’t. You can ease into it and have a relatively simple, straightforward opening that sets the table for the crazy.

Novel: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

What You Can Learn: You can do whatever you want.

Ellmann’s novel, shortlisted for The Booker Prize, is famously a single sentence that goes on for more than 1,000 pages. Technically, the novel opens with a brief glimpse of a tigress and her cubs in the wild, written more or less traditionally, but then Ellmann launches into The Sentence, and she doesn’t ease into anything. She begins her narrator’s nervous, jittery stream-of-consciousness right from the first word, and the reader has to hang on and try to piece together the details. Technically, the entire book is Chapter One, line one.

The fact that the raccoons are now banging an empty yoghurt carton around on the driveway, the fact that in the early morning stillness it sounds like gunshots, the fact that, even in fog, with ice on the road and snow banks blocking their vision, people are already zooming around our corner, the site of many a minor accident, the fact that a guy in a pickup once accidentally skidded into our garage, and next time it could be our house, or a child, Wake Up Picture Day, dicamba, Kleenex, the fact that a pickup truck killed Dilly, the fact that she’d successfully dodged cars for three whole years, the fact that she knew all about cars, but during that time the traffic grew, the fact that it’s crazee now, the fact that after Dilly got killed, the kids painted a big warning sign with a big black cat on it and stuck it right by the fence, but nobody notices it, the fact that they’re all going too fast to see it, ...

Next time you’re worried that your idea for your new novel is too crazy, think about Ducks, Newburyport and just go for it.

Novel: The Institute by Stephen King

What You Can Learn: Your first chapter doesn’t have to immediately tie in to your story.

Stephen King knows how to write novels. One of his most recent, The Institute, opens with a long story about a former police officer named Tim Jamieson who takes a job as a night knocker in a small town. Then King switches to the story of Luke Ellis, a child with some minor psychic abilities who is kidnapped and brought to the titular Institute for some very King-like, very dark, adventures. For several hundred pages.

Does Jamieson eventually return to the story? He does! But it almost doesn’t matter: We’re often told we can’t introduce a character and then forget about them for hundreds of pages, and a first chapter that doesn’t tie in to the main story until much later is a mistake. But this is exactly what King does, and it works because of three factors: One, King fleshes out Jamieson’s character and the town around him really well, so it doesn’t feel brief or truncated; two, the tone of both narratives is consistent, making them feel like disparate parts of a larger story; and three, the main narrative is a mystery, which psychologically primes the reader to be patient and wait for clues and surprise reveals.

Novel: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

What You Can Learn: You can wallow in detail and description before moving things along.

Another rule you’ll hear a lot is the one about getting right to your story instead of wasting time with description and lush details. But Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel begins with a mesmerizing torrent of detail divorced from context:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.

Toole pulls this off because he knows precisely how long to keep it up before it grows tedious, and because he follows this detailed description of Ignatius J. Reilly with the joke that the man wearing a too-small green hunting cap indoors is judging everyone around him on their fashion choices. The details, in other words, immediately do work for the character. So if your instinct is to wallow in description and observation for a few hundred words, indulge yourself. If it doesn’t work, well, that’s what revision time was made for.(12)

Novel: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

What You Can Learn: Your opening doesn’t have to be necessary at all.

If you’ve read Hawthorne’s classic novel, you know that some advise you skip the first chapter, “The Custom House.” It’s basically a standalone short story based on Hawthorne’s life,(13) added after the rest of the story to make the book longer and as an attempt to manage people’s reactions to his shocking subject matter.

Whatever your opinion of “The Custom House,” its presence hasn’t harmed the novel’s reputation. If you’re having trouble getting into your novel, why not try a Chapter One that’s a vaguely-related standalone story? It might just work, and centuries later people might argue about the necessity of reading it.

Starting a novel is sometimes the hardest part. Don’t make it harder by worrying about breaking rules—if you read enough books, you’ll find that novels have been started in every possible way, no matter what the internet says. Just go for it and worry about whether it works later.(14)

Footnotes

1. Like regular science, but with more metaphors and less opportunity for monetization.

2. Pro tip: Dropping grammatical terms into casual conversations is a surefire way to have far fewer casual conversations.

3. Although it will likely leave you a little closer to an emotional breakdown, which ironically probably increases your chances of finishing that novel.

4. Sadly, the second best piece of advice a writer can receive is “Don’t quit your day job.” The third best piece of advice is that you can Google anything and explain it as research for your novel.

5. I apologize. I wrote that and immediately hated myself.

6. Admittedly, if you think for a moment about the title of the book, it sort of gives the game away.

7. My ears are burning.

8. Personally, I’m glad because the man wrote his novels using index cards, which is the third-worst way to write a novel, following 1. An Etch A Sketch and 2. Cocktail napkins.

9. If you really want to shock them, tell them that drinks are on you.

10. It’s almost as if there are no rules for writing novels. This would be an ideal moment to plug my book Writing Without Rules, but I have too much class.

11. To be fair, if I knew a lot about 19 century whaling techniques, I’d find a way to work that into a novel, too, just so everyone would know how much I know about 19 century whaling. That’s just literary science.

12. Also: Alcohol.

13. I’m now going to start every new novel with a 5,000-word story about me buying groceries. It’ll always be me buying groceries, but different groceries at different stores. Future literary scientists are going to hate me.

14. This is the attitude that has gained me a criminal record and a lifetime ban from several fast food restaurants. No regrets.

Sign up for this Writers Digest University course for more help in writing the opening pages of your novel. 

Sign up for this Writers Digest University course for more help in writing the opening pages of your novel. 

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