I took the advice of very helpful people on my last question. I considered many possibilities to start my book, but I chose this one.

This is only a snippet of my opening. I am going for a strong grip. If I am heading in the right direction, but need strengthening then please tell me. Please be critical:

The house felt so empty when Grace wasn’t here. My sister was almost always at work, trying to make ends meet. I kept wishing that I could do something to help her, but there wasn’t much legal work for a sixteen year old in Sector C. So in the end, her job was the only thing keeping a roof over our heads.

I was lying down on the couch and staring at the ceiling while I waited for her. It was my favorite spot to relax and think. It wasn’t extremely comfortable or expensive. It was an old, worn down couch with a disgusting brown color. It was practically falling apart, but I still liked it. The thing made me feel at peace when I laid on it. Time felt like it just passed by much faster when I laid here. Just five minutes on the couch would zone me out entirely.

“Drake? Hey, wake up.”

My eyes opened to someone standing over me. She had steel gray eyes and long, black hair that fell to her side. She was young and beautiful yet, she gave off a mature vibe.

“Oh, welcome home Grace.” I said, yawning.

She was still in her work uniform. She wore a black vest over a white dress shirt with a skirt. She had just gotten home.

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    I think this is heaps better than the first sample. The only thing that I immediately noticed was that he wouldn't describe his sister like that unless he was attracted to her, which is icky. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 8 '14 at 14:18
  • In your opinion, the next bit that I should write decides where this is going? for better or for worse? – Nate_Writes Jan 8 '14 at 22:48
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    That's a complex question. You might enjoy dropping by the chat room to discuss it. We have a regular chat on Tuesdays, and people are there other times too. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 9 '14 at 1:00

“Drake? Hey, wake up.”

My eyes opened to someone standing over me. She had steel gray eyes and long, black hair that fell to her side. She was young and beautiful yet, she gave off a mature vibe.

“Oh, welcome home Grace.” I said, yawning.

Brandon Sanderson did this time and again in The Alloy of Law and it drove me crazy;

My eyes opened to someone standing over me. She had steel gray eyes and long, black hair...

To me this says that he doesn't recognise her, if he did he wouldn't say someone, he'd say Grace, because he knows who she is. Starting with an unnamed someone and describing her features in that way is normally reserved for when a character meets someone they don't know (because looking at their feature is one of the first things they do.)

instead I feel something like this would work better:

“Drake? Hey, wake up.”

I opened my eyes to find Grace standing over me, her steel blue eyes catching the light behind a curtain of long black hair.

“Oh, welcome home Grace.” I said, yawning.

Also, the mature vibe bit would come across better in context; don't tell us she's mature, show us she is in her actions.

In respect to the overall piece I'm concerned that rather than being impactive it's actually quite slow. Perhaps if we could see what happens next? As it is it's just a guy ruminating on how he likes to veg out on the sofa. And I agree with SF, I have no idea where and when this is set. The Sector C thing makes me think it's a Sci-Fi, is that right?

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  • No! I didn't even realise that the 'someone standing over me' when they know who it is thing annoyed me until now. Now i'm never going to be back to my blissful ignorance! Side note, i really like your revised paragraph – RhysW Jan 8 '14 at 10:54
  • Well, to me it didn't occur because I was too confused with the bigger picture to ever notice this. – SF. Jan 8 '14 at 12:00
  • @SF. I think your two answers are quite complimentary together. Yours gives advice on how best to set the scene first to bring the reader in, ClockeWork then provides information on how to tidy up the parts involving people. Betwen the two you provide info on the two most important parts. People and places! – RhysW Jan 8 '14 at 14:57


We're floating in void. It might be a mars colony or a soviet siberian town, or a suburb in colonial Brasil, or the last human city of postapocalyptic Earth, I just can't picture the place, nor the characters. I still don't know the narrator's gender. It's an uncomfortable void and instead of trying to get into the minds of characters I'm grasping at straws struggling to build the scene and the characters.

Give us a snapshot picture of the world, then I might start considering other emotions.

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Between the second and third paragraph is an idefinite stretch of time where your character sleeps and nothing happens. Even if you don't explicitly count the seconds in your writing, that time with nothing happening is still there in the mind of the reader, creating a false start for them. Don't begin your novel with telling your readers that nothing is going on.

Like for your last version of your beginning I'm gonna recommend that you start with the third paragraph and drop the first two entirely. Work in their content later in the novel.

“Drake? Hey, wake up.”

makes for a perfect beginning, if you rework the next (now second) paragraph in the way CLockeWork recommended in his answer.

Of course you could start a book with

The house felt so empty when Grace wasn’t here.

It's a good first sentence. But after it you proceed to explain (tell), instead of letting the reader experience (show) how it feels empty. If you want a slow altmospheric beginning, you need to make the emptiness interesting. Here is someting I might do:

The house felt so empty when Grace wasn't there. Lying on the sofa I slowly sank deeper and deeper into myself, looking up at the faraway ceiling as if from the bottom of the sea. Light reflected from the windshields of the passing cars glided past on the dirty plaster like strange underwater creatures.

I would set up a motif (strange creatures underwater) that I would take up later and that would gain some meaning, while at the same time creating some emotion related to the emptiness of the house. What that empty house means for you, you need to define in the context of your story. If it means nothing, then don't start the novel with it. Because the first sentence sets the theme of your book (if it is a good first sentence).

The first sentence and first paragraphs also set the tone, so if the novel is filled with exciting action, the beginning should not be introspective like my example; if on the other hand the book is a lot about how your protagonist feels and what he thinks, then a funny or actionpacked beginning does not fit either. Don't mislead your readers, but draw them in by condensing the essence of your novel into the first sentence.

In my opinion, you need to define for yourself, what your book is about and write the first sentence from that understanding, pointing it like an arrow at the heart of your novel.

Is it about the emptiness the protagnoist has inside him, and how he finally finds something that gives him a meaning for his life once he crossed the seemingly endless waste at his core and finds his strength and love and a means to save the world? => start with the emptiness

Or is it about a boy looking up to his sister and following her around until he finally finds his own feet and in the end stands looking down at her after he saved her, healing the wound of his broken family? => start with her standing over him

Or is it about a dystopia? => Start with "A lot of people think that Sector C is a horrible place to grow up in."

Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed has one of the greatest beginnings. You may not like it, and you might disagree with my interpretation (below), but it will make clear how the beginning of a good novel works. Here it is:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

A number of people were coming along the road towards the landing field ...

Why is this a great beginning?

(a) The first sentence is so ridiculously concise, it makes you want to laugh out loud. Its banality and brevity are like a perverse riddle.

(b) The next sentence creates tension. If the wall were unimportant, it would not be mentioned in the first sentence. The narrator just told us implicitly that it was important. So its existence (in that first sentence on the level of the written novel) contradicts its appearance.

(c) The first two paragraphs are an elegant and concise allegory of LeGuin's basic philosophy: how the belief in differences between humans causes evil. This beginning defines what the novel will be about. In this, this novel is very classical, giving everything away right at the beginning, and then proceeding to illustrate the premise. Novels are not usually written that way today, but they still start with the theme. See Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. First sentence: "I'd never given much thought to how I would die", which anticipates the death at the hands of James that Edward saved Bella from, as well as the "death" that makes her immortal when Edward bites her in a later book in the series, which is in fact what the whole series is about: the transcendence of death in eternal love, the basic romantic idea. Meyer's books may be stupid and puerile, but they work their readers well.

(d) The third and fourth paragraphs define the world we are on. Completely. From here on out you know where you are. If you want, everything can be pure action and no more description after that.

To sum up:

  • create a moment of surprise and/or tension and
  • define the topic / motif / theme of your novel in the first sentence;
  • create a clear sense of place in the first paragraphs

Break these rules only if you know what you are doing.

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  • It is a dystopia, but I tried to write the first paragraph to portray that Grace is the only family Drake has and how important that is to him – Nate_Writes Jan 8 '14 at 22:56
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    I understand. Read my edit. Define your basic plot (for yourself, no need to post it). Define the emotional theme (what makes that story interesting for your readers: love, action, political ideas? what is your emphasis, your perspective?). Try to forge this into one sentence. One symbol. Really try for one sentence! Write the first paragraph to connect this theme with your protagonist and his world. Then use the next one or two paragraphs to describe the place where it all will take place. Not the room, but the whole world symbolized in that room or the situation between the characters. – user5645 Jan 8 '14 at 23:23
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    I'm really impressed with how you accept our rather direct critique. And don't lose faith in your ability. The beginning is the most difficult part. You don't need to get it perfect right away. It might be easier to write it after you have finished the book. I usually just try to find an interesting "image" from which to start out, and when I'm at the end, I can usually see what the beginning needs to be. – user5645 Jan 8 '14 at 23:34
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    But what is the first sentence in the Hunger Games? "When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold." That is what that book is about: the choices that Katniss has to make for the survival of everyone she loves and that at the same time lead to her (intermittent, feared) loss of those loved ones. If you read the book(s), you will realize that that is what drives Katniss and what she spends a lot of her time and mental effort reflecting upon. The action with the hunger games is just the context in which this motivation of the protagonist plays itself out. [contd.] – user5645 Jan 9 '14 at 12:17
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    [contd.] So on the surface we have an actionpacked dystopian story and a romantic parallel story, but what drives the events and what grips the readers is how Katniss cannot help but make wrong choices because all choices exclude an alternative she also wants (e.g. she loves both Peeta and Gale). – user5645 Jan 9 '14 at 12:21

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