The job of the first sentence in a novel is to draw a reader in, and the job of the opening paragraphs is to convince him or her that this book is worth reading all the way through.
Whatever genre you write, the opening paragraphs need to create suspense and make the reader care about the characters and want to know what's going to happen to them.
James Scott Bell, in The Art of War for Writers, says this about openings:
“. . . you are in a battle for attention. You must use all haste to surprise and capture the reader.
And I mean take him by the lapels and drag him into the story world with no time wasted.
. . .
So how do you do it?
By understanding why people read.
They read to worry.
They read because they want to have their emotions wrenched by the plight of a character to whom they feel emotionally connected.
You do the connecting. You start connecting from paragraph one.
If you want to sell your fiction, you must grab the emotions of the reader by putting a character in some kind of discomfort or danger or the possibility thereof . . . Anything that is a disturbance, or potential disturbance, to their ordinary world.”
Bell’s making a strong point, but he is not saying to open with murder and mayhem, unless that’s what your novel is about. He is saying that you should open with a disturbance to your character’s ordinary world that will make the reader pull for them.
That’s the litmus test. To do that, it helps to make the opening pithy and immediate.
Here’s an opening Bell offers as an example, where the disturbance is placed at the end of the first paragraph: from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow:
Paul Osborn sat alone among the smoky bustle of the after-work crowd, staring into a glass of red wine. He was tired and hurt and confused. For no particular reason he looked up. When he did, his breath left him with a jolt. Across the room sat the man who murdered his father.
No question that gets my attention and makes me not only curious about Paul Osborne, but worried about him.
Bell is a master of fiction writing, and if you haven't had a chance to read his books on writing yet, you'll no doubt love them. The Art of War for Writers is chock full of pithy, usable examples to help you hit the beats just right throughout your novel.
Do you have a favorite opening in a book you enjoyed reading (or writing)? Maybe a different kind of book than the one Bell shared? How did it pull you in? Did it create suspense and curiosity and above all, worry? Care to share?