6 Tasks to Accomplish with Act 1 of Your Novel – Part 1

bend in the roadAs writers we know we have to hook our reader at the onset — no matter what it is we’re writing.

But as novelists, the opening act of our story needs to accomplish six tasks to keep our readers interested and wanting to know what’s just around the bend. For the next several Tuesday Writing Tip posts, that’s what I’ll be discussing. Included with this series is the opportunity to win James Scott Bell’s book Plot & Structure. You’ll find the giveaway details at the end of this post.

You may know what those 6 things are already without even realizing it. You’ve gleaned them from your own reading most likely, but, like me, may not be consciously aware of them. What’s #1?

Hook your reader.

“Duh, you already told me that,” you say.

The hard part is actually knowing how to do it.

Opening lines from my favorite authors.

“On Tuesday afternoon at five thirty, an elderly lady strode into Corin’s antiques store as if she owned it and said, ‘The next two months of your life will be either heaven or hell.’” ~ from The Chair, by James L. Rubart

“Reece Roth spun at the sound — a dull scrape like log on log.” ~ from Soul’s Gate, by James L. Rubart

“When I agreed to attend Roger Harden’s dinner party, how could I have known the terrible events that would take place on Palm Island and especially what would happen to Roger himself?” ~ from Everybody Loved Roger Harden, by Cecil Murphey

“Elmer Grigsby woke with a catch in his get-along.” ~ from Thirty Days to Glory, by Kathy Nickerson (debut novel)

What’s in these opening lines that makes them work?

I’m a detail-oriented, linear reader, so the specificity of Rubart’s first line in The Chair grabs me by the collar and jerks me up in my chair.

I learn who the protagonist is (Corin) and what Corin does (runs an antiques store). Then Rubart thrusts Corin (and me) into conflict with “your life will be either heaven or hell.” He makes that line count by first showing us the woman who spoke it: she “…strode into Corin’s antiques store as if she owned it…”

Rubart isn’t as specific in his opener for Soul’s Gate, but I learn who the protagonist is and that for some reason Reese Roth is on edge, nervous. What’s happening in Reese’s life to make him startle at the sound of scraping logs? Where is he that he hears this sound? I want to find out more.

Cecil Murphey’s Everybody Loved Roger Harden is in first person. I don’t know the character’s name, but I don’t need to. It’s “I” and that puts me on the stage (instead of in the audience) with all the other actors. Personally, I prefer first person to third. I experience what the character experiences rather than just observe. Something terrible happens to Roger and our protagonist is in the midst of what happens. I want to find out what happened to Roger and how “I” am involved.

With the particular verbiage Kathy Nickerson uses in the opening line in her debut novel Thirty Days to Glory — “Elmer Grigsby woke with a catch in his get-along.” — she tells me a tremendous amount about Elmer. A reader may think this is a western novel, but in fact it is contemporary.

I like this guy right from the start. (He makes me think of my grandmother.) He’s Joe average, a down-to-earth person just like me. He’s humble and probably an older man with some Mid-West or cowboy lineage. This “catch in his get-along” says something is wrong, and I want to know how he’s going to handle this problem.

Didn’t know you could learn so much in just one line, did you? There’s more here, yet, but we’ll look at that in later posts.

What do these opening lines contain that help grab the reader?

They introduce a main character and set that character in motion — something is about to happen or is happening to the character. This motion compels me forward.

If you’re not a mystery buff like I am, these opening lines may not grab you at all.

Pull out some of your favorite novels and study the opening lines.

What genre are they in?

What’s in them that grabs you?

Why does it grab you?

If they’re all the same genre, can you find similarities to the opening lines?

Share your observations in the comments below.

Debra L. Butterfield © 2014

Related Articles

6 Tasks to Accomplish in Act 1 of Your Novel, Part 2
Where in the World Is Your Story, Part 3
6 Tasks to Accomplish in Act 1 of Your Novel, Part 4
Who’s the Big Bad Wolf in Your Story, Act 1, Part 5
What Do Football and Fiction Have in Common, Act. 1, Part 6

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Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.


  1. Ah, thanks, Debra! 🙂


  1. […] part 1 I discussed what goes into creating that opening hook. Now let’s take a look at an element that helps keep readers […]

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