Novel Openings: What Works

Case Study 1: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Ask any agent, any writer who has ever queried a novel, any editor, and, I daresay, any reader, and they’re bound to agree: a strong opening is one of the most important aspects of your novel. Readers who browse bookstores (or download samples of e-books) use the opening to decide whether to buy the book. Agents evaluate openings, the quality of the writing and the intrigue of the plot and protagonist, in deciding whether to request the full manuscript.

Consequently, as writers, we should pay extra attention to our books’ openings. (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve rewritten the openings to my novels!) Rather than list (yawn) all of the requirements of a strong opening, I’d like to break down an example. Below is the first paragraph of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You.

The opening paragraph of Everything I Never Told You

Now, let’s look at all the magic that Ng achieves in a mere 131 words.

  1. Conflict: A beloved daughter/sister is dead. We don’t know how she died, but the characters in this paragraph know even less than the reader. They’re waiting for her to come to breakfast! So Ng creates tension through dramatic irony (when the reader knows more than the characters), as well as through the situation itself, a death.
  2. Curiosity: How did Lydia die? When and how will the family find out? Ng’s setup plants these questions in our minds, compelling us to read further to seek answers.
  3. Setting: See how subtly Ng inserts a specific time and place so that the reader is immediately grounded in the novel’s world. In the third sentence, she gives us a date/time stamp, similar to a police report on a person’s death. By keeping with the theme of death, this insertion of the date/time is seamless. Similarly, by calling out “Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source,” the text identifies the location in a way that flows easily within the narrative, via the radio announcer on the father’s commute.
  4. Character traits / insights: Ng gives one sentence each to four different characters, providing specific details that hint at their personalities. From the tick-marked physics homework, we suspect Lydia’s mother will be a focused (ruthless?) task-master, detail-oriented, who prioritizes Lydia’s educational achievement. Her father, “vexed by the crackles of static,” might turn out to be more easily flustered than her mother. The siblings’ behaviors—brother’s yawning and sister’s sucking cornflakes to pieces—hint they might not live up to their mother’s exacting standards.
  5. POV and voice: We have an omniscient narrator here, one who is able to be inside the father’s head (“vexed”) during his drive to work, while simultaneously inside the brother’s head (“twined in the tail end of his dream”), and so forth with the mother and sister. The voice is literary (“hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes”) but also accessible: we understand the characters and plot, at least, as far as a person can within the first paragraph. To me, this is the essence of upmarket fiction: beautiful, even inventive writing on the line-level, coupled with a story arc / characters / plot that feel relatable and easily understood.
  6. The “before”: In classic story structure, an author provides a glimpse of what the characters’ lives look like before an inciting incident which shifts them into a new world / new situation. This paragraph gives an example of the status quo: for these characters who don’t know of Lydia’s death, this is their typical morning routine. By leading off with “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” Ng ensures that we’re not bored by reading about what the daughter does with her cereal, for instance. We know their worlds will be disrupted, any second.

Try rereading the opening paragraph, with all of these attributes in mind.

Are you impressed? Wowed? I am. How can an author pull all this off, in one brief paragraph?

Now, we’re not all Celeste Ng.1 But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for similar feats in our opening paragraphs. Look at your sentences. Are they serving your novel well? Do they help establish conflict, define character, set us in place or time, plant questions in readers’ minds, showing us the “before,” all while grounding us in a clear voice and POV? If not, consider moving them to later chapters, editing them for detail and clarity, or deleting them.

The opening of a novel is challenging to get “right.” But it’s worth spending the extra time and attention on those words, which (in my opinion) represent your novel’s most valuable real estate, aside from the cover. Good luck!

1 Actually, none of us is, unless… Celeste? Are you reading this?

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