As someone writing a novel in the third person omniscient point of view, I’ve gotten some conflicting advice about the best way to “hook” the reader. Tales are told of agents rejecting based on the first sentence. The first paragraph, everybody seems to say, is crucial. But most of the so-called rules I’ve seen for how to start a novel are tailored to those written in first person or in third person limited, perspectives in which it’s important to quickly connect to the main character. The omniscient point of view can be completely different.
But you don’t have to just take my word for it. In this post, I will be giving examples of openings from published novels, from famous classics to books published in more recent years. In doing so, I hope to outline a variety of approaches for writers to learn from and perhaps even apply to their own novels.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
This first example is one of the most famous. This one incredibly long sentence conveys a seemingly impossible duality. How can anything be simultaneously the worst and the best? How can it be true that wisdom coexists with foolishness and light with dark? And yet, when we reach the turn of the sentence and find this seemingly impossible time compared with “the present period”, we see a glint of humor that makes it all fall into place. I can almost read the newspaper headlines crying out over everything that’s awful, at the same time that politicians declare that everything has gotten better during their time in office or will get better if only they are elected. In any given time, isn’t it true that “the noisiest authorities” will describe everything according to extremes and nothing by half measures?
This, then, serves to give the reader the impression of a narrator who has insight into the human condition, who knows the present as well as the past and will be able to tell the story of this particular period of the past in a way that makes it real for readers of the present day. The style tells us the narrator will do this eloquently and with the appropriate level of gravity while also providing a degree of levity that will prevent the book from becoming an endless slog through tragedy.
For readers who know this book is set during the period of the French Revolution, and especially those who take a view on those events that is similar to Dickens’, I imagine that they will indeed be drawn in by the promise of hearing the story this narrator has to tell. Expectations have been set, and the attention has been drawn, not by the main character the reader will be spending the rest of the book with but by the narrator who will be guiding the way.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice takes a similar approach, showing a narrator with insight and a sense of humor. This narrator is speaking tongue-in-cheek, with full knowledge of the fact that a man’s level of wealth has little to do with how badly he might want a wife. What it does affect is how much the eligible women (and the parents of eligible women) around him insist that he must want a wife. And that is a beautiful opening to a story surrounding a family full of eligible daughters, with a mother quite insistent on making them the best matches they can make while espousing ideas cut from the same cloth. While A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for historical fiction, Pride and Prejudice sets it for what is known as a novel of manners, all in a single sentence.
This technique of an insightful opening that captures something important about the book to follow is seen in many other examples also.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”Matilda by Roald Dahl
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Anna Karenina features more than one unhappy family, and its plot depends upon the reader’s interest in examining each and watching the events of their lives play out.
Matilda‘s opening sentence is undoubtedly true of many families, which sets us up to trust the narrator as an impartial observer and judge of children. Because we see so clearly that this narrator would never praise an average or slightly above-average child as having “qualities of genius” in the way that many parents would, the reader is able to trust that the main character Matilda must truly be extraordinary when the narrator cites her as an exception to the rule.
The opening of Their Eyes Were Watching God takes a similar twist, as in the second paragraph the narrator turns to the experience of women, as opposed to that of the men who watch for ships. This book is about a woman, in a time when women are not treated as equals, especially when racism is also thrown into the mix. Yet they still have wishes, as the main character shows while she reflects upon her life, starting with her youthful hopes and ending with the burial she’s just come back from as the first chapter opens. The full beginning does a perfect job of setting expectations, as all the previous ones have, although its promise is for a story very different.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Comparing this narrator to that of A Tale of Two Cities reveals starkly different viewpoints. The omniscient narrator, while certainly all-knowing, is not a monolith, to be found exactly the same in every single book one reads.
Similarly, the omniscient narrator is not bound to always begin by revealing some truth of the human condition. For a book focused entirely on humor, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting off in such a way would actually undercut the light-hearted tone. Instead, it starts by showing off how a narrator removed from the world is uniquely suited to make witty commentary on it.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
In all cases, these are the sort of openings you wouldn’t be able to have if the story were written in third person limited. Odds are, the main character does not and would never have these sorts of thoughts. The main character does not have an outside view of their own life or an understanding of the future or the opportunity to peer into the lives of others. Sweeping commentaries, satire, and thought-provoking wisdom would all be lost if these books were written in a different way, and their openings would fail if they didn’t reflect exactly these aspects that make their books so strong.
Another example of a book that starts by showing off the powerful narrative voice that will move the story forward is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in the mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).”Beloved by Toni Morrison
Here we certainly see a strong narrative voice, speaking clearly and even a bit conversationally, as if aware of an audience being spoken to. It reveals the problem at hand instantly, in a style that makes the reader really feel that baby’s spite, and the storytelling is all the more strengthened by the narrator’s ability to reveal the thoughts of multiple characters who likely never told anyone else the exact moment that made them choose to run away.
We also see that characters are introduced, though it’s not immediately clear who is going to be the main character or if there even will be only one. What is clear is what the story is about. For the omniscient narrator, it’s not at all necessary to start with a main character. In fact, there are many examples of books starting with another character instead.
“’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web is not a book about a little girl named Fern, although she does feature in it. The main character is actually a pig named Wilbur, and he’s about to meet an unfortunate fate by Papa’s axe until Fern steps in to put a stop to it. This opening, in my opinion, is effective because a child reading the story might not immediately understand why they should have sympathy for a pig. Perhaps they think of pigs as dirty creatures who roll around in the mud and aren’t particularly appealing. It is by watching Fern defend Wilbur that the reader comes to understand that he should be defended, creating an open-mindedness that pays dividends when Charlotte the spider comes into the story as well.
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Here again, we start with someone other than the main character. The main character is Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, but again this main character’s life is about to change as a result of what is being set up in the first sentence.
This example is also worth noting, I think, because it shows that the narrator can choose to refer to the characters in any way that fits their style. Fern was introduced in a familiar way, by first name only, while here Bilbo is announced with his full name, including his title and where he lives. The narrator can start close to the characters, as in third person limited, or start from farther away in order to give the readers context. This can be especially helpful in a fantasy world or when introducing a character who is not as ordinary as Fern. While she certainly has a special sense of compassion, it’s easy enough to understand that she lives with her mother and father on a farm much like those the reader is already familiar with. Hobbiton, on the other hand, is unlike anything the reader has seen unless they’ve previously read The Hobbit.
That book, incidentally, begins by setting the scene of this delightful fantasy location and giving the reader a much-needed sense of what the characters who live within it are like.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy novel that begins by telling the reader something important about the world that leads into something important about the character who is going to be focused on.
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Other fantasy novels might show the uniqueness of a character through a twist on the formula of the “universally truthful” one-liner.
“All children, except one, grow up.”Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
Here, we begin to reach the examples of books that do begin directly with mention of the main character or characters, but it’s important to note that the narrator’s presence is also felt.
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
In this example, all four of the main characters are introduced, but this is clearly done from an outside perspective. The narrator refers to them all at once, from a time in the future, and in the sort of voice an adult uses when explaining things to children. This is another way of setting expectations for how the story is going to be told, as does the “Once there were” wording that calls to mind a fairy tale while not being exactly the same as one.
This is an example that’s particularly heavy on what writers refer to as “telling” as opposed to “showing”. Instead of plainly stating that something is going to happen to the children while they’re away from London because of the war, Lewis could have taken the time to show a scene in which the air raid sirens go off while the children are still in London, show their parents making the decision to send them away, and so on. Some writers I know would probably even say he should have, but in my opinion, that would drag the opening out unnecessarily and would not provide nearly the same level of clarity to younger readers about what’s going on. This isn’t a story about the war. It’s a story about a magic wardrobe that takes the children on an adventure in another world.
The ability to tell the reader what they need to know and move along can actually be a strength of the omniscient point of view, and removing instances of “telling” can destroy the power of the narrator. Writers need to understand that this point of view simply operates differently from others.
The description of characters, in particular, is a way in which the differences can stand out. While in first person novels, the writer may struggle to find an excuse to provide the main character’s physical description, resulting in a lot of looking into mirrors and so on, a writer of omniscient can start the book by simply telling you. And they can tell you through a narrator who sees the character in a different way than they see themselves, showing how you, the reader, might look at them if you were there.
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of today’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.”Middlemarch by George Eliot
This opening gets right to the point of who the main character is, seeking to catch the reader’s attention with an interesting character in the same way a novel written in first person or third person limited might. The difference is in who’s narrating.
This is perhaps the most subtle of the examples, which is why I saved it for last. There can be a danger for an amateur writer to slip into third person limited, or something closely resembling it, accidentally. It certainly is possible to use an opening like this one and find success with it, but I hope by now you’re able to pick up on the way the narrator is keeping a hand on the wheel throughout.
If you start very close to a character and the narrator is nowhere to be found, readers will likely be surprised and perhaps even confused when the narrator pulls away to reveal something that character does not know or to focus on another character instead. This was a mistake I made before doing my research.
If you are also writing a novel in this point of view, I encourage you to do yours as well and not to listen to advice tailor-made for other kinds of books. Read some of these examples if they interest you or seek out other ones and learn exactly the techniques these authors used to make it work. Your opening should suit your book, and if you chose your point of view for a good reason, there’s also a good reason to open it accordingly.