Inspiring Novel Openings

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Often, the thing that inspires me to write a book is the most obvious of things you could imagine:

Other books.

Writers inspire me—as you’ll see, because I’ve invited some of them to write guest blogs about their own inspirations this month…

…and the novels these writers write inspire me most of all.

Sometimes, in the most gut-wrenching moments of writing a draft (it could be a first draft or a second draft or a fourteenth draft… there are torturous moments for me in every phase of a novel), when I need a breath of fresh air and to remind myself why I’m doing this, I reread the first pages of books I love. I slip out of my writer skin and simply become a reader again—before books were the complex oh-so-pretty monsters that simultaneously flutter and tear apart my heart.

I dip my fingers into a few books—savor their first pages, seeing how the author started his or her story and remembering how it took off from there… and I feel better.

In fact, often after doing this, I feel inspired.

I thought I’d try a little of that today, and share some of the openings that have inspired me. And hooked me, as any good opening should do.

I’ve chosen only the first paragraphs—and sometimes the first paragraphs are only a single line. You don’t need that many words to hook you in a story…

So I looked around the bookshelves in my bedroom and plucked some books to seek out some inspiring openings. I found quite a few (which speaks to how many books are piled in precarious stacks on the nonworking fireplace mantel in my bedroom), but also it speaks to how many different ways there are to grab your reader on page 1. So many stories, and so many directions they could go! I tell you, that inspires me.

Here are some openings that hook me…

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. The Scriptura Sancta lies discarded, pages crumpled, on my bed. Bruises mark my knees from kneeling on the tiles, and the Godstone in my navel throbs. I have been praying—no, begging—that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.

Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson

We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t even look at her. The fights came when I thought she broke a promise. She said there’d be an Indian reservation. She said that we’d see buffalo in Texas. My mother said a lot of things. We were driving from Bay City, Wisconsin, to California, so I could be a child star while I was still a child.

You by Charles Benoit

You’re surprised at all the blood.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

Imagine four years. Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—every day, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

That Night by Alice McDermott

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad—the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their lights summer clothes—startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.

The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff

Once, my mother told a whole host of angels that she’d rather die than go back to a man she didn’t love.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Right before my twelfth birthday, my dad, Jules, and I moved into a two-room apartment in a building that we called the Ostrich Hotel. It was the first time I could remember taking a taxicab anywhere. It let us off in the alley behind the building, where all the walls had pretty graffiti painted on them. There was a cartoon cow with a sad look on its face and a girl with an oxygen mask holding a tiny baby in her arms.

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

I have three simple wishes. They’re really not too much to ask.

Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

After the accident, I became less visible. I don’t mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn’t even realize where they were living. They didn’t care that Marilyn’s prints were practically in their backyard at Graumann’s; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer’s Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor’s; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers. There was no one who cared. Until Dirk.

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Some memories are slippery.

Paper Towns by John Green

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.

What are some novel openings that inspire you… a first line, a first paragraph? Share one with me—and then let’s go write our own awesome first lines!

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