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How to Open a Novel with Literary Agent Marilia Savvides

February 6, 2022
February 6, 2022

Are you wondering how to open a novel? You’re not alone. It can be one of the biggest sticking points writers face – not least because it’s often what will grab (or not!) the attention of publishing professionals.

That’s why we’re so thankful to Marilia Savvides for sharing her invaluable insights, based on her experiences as a literary agent in the Books Division at 42, one of our trusted literary agencies at The Novelry.

Marilia Savvides is also a graduate of UCL and the Columbia Publishing Course in New York, and a returning member of the faculty at the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University. Plus, she spent seven years working at Peters Fraser + Dunlop and joined 42 in early 2020, and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2018. Trust us, she knows what she’s talking about!

Here, Marilia shares her thoughts on perfect opening lines, compelling first chapters, and how to start a story.

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line,” he said. “It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about…To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar… There’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
— Stephen King

When you open a novel, remember that you’re writing for readers

As a literary agent, first and foremost, I’m a reader. Sure, we read more than most, but when you boil it down, the truth is agents and editors are just readers at heart.

We love books. And like everyone else, we want to be gripped, engaged, invested, obsessed, scared, puzzled and intrigued by what we read – right from the opening of the novel. Demand your reader’s attention We want to be plucked from our lives and transported someplace new.

There is no greater joy than the moment you realise you’ve just picked up a book you’re going to fall in love with. The sheer magic of that connection with a great story idea, the growing of the heart, because you’re so excited about the story you’re about to be told; the sadness you already feel because at some point, it’s going to be over. What a gift.

It’s a cliché but that’s because it’s true.

Storytelling is in your DNA

If you’re worrying about the best way to begin telling your story, don’t! It’s something we’ve been doing for thousands of years.

Remember that human beings are built to tell compelling stories. That’s how we all make sense of the world, and always have.

We add narrative to our own lives and pull a thread from A to B to C, to stitch a linear story where we are the main character. We read books and watch movies and documentaries and listen to podcasts, because we want to be told stories. Good stories. We want to make sense of the world, we want to be seen, and we want to be entertained.

Your job, as the writer, is to cast a spell on us right from the moment you open the novel. Catch your reader’s attention and don’t let go.

No matter the genre, no matter whether your novel falls into the publishing buzzword categories of commercial or literary fiction or upmarket or sci fi or historical, or some combination of these, the truth remains the same. Novel openings need to grab us by the throat or the heart. What they absolutely shouldn’t do is leave us cold, unless it’s with goosebumps and a chill running up our spine.

The opening line

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
― Donna Tartt, The Secret History
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984
You’ve been here before
— Stephen King, Needful Things

When it comes time to start a novel, don’t fret too much over the first lines. The opening sentence really isn’t everything.

I’ve read hundreds of novels I’ve adored which began in very simple, straightforward ways. Even unmemorable beginnings can work well, and often they can be preferable to the common mistakes I see: overly written beginnings that are trying too hard to showcase someone’s ‘writing skills’ (more on this later).

Still, we would all be lying if we didn’t admit that, once in a while, an author writes an opening to a novel that is so simple and atmospheric and shocking (1984, The Bell Jar, The Secret History) or so concise and perfectly confident in its voice (I Capture the Castle, Moby Dick) that we immediately want to know more about the story, the narrator, the world we’ve just entered. Most of us can think of a particular scene or first line that brought us, with a delighted crash, into a fictional world, whether it be in a novel or a short story.

Now that’s how you open a novel: capture your reader from the very start.

Less is more in novel openings

One of the most common mistakes I come across when reading submissions is stuffing that first chapter with too much information, lengthy character description recounting countless character traits, or simply too many characters. In short, over-exposition.

Some authors think they should showcase as much detail as possible about the main character, the world we’re in, or the plot of the book in the first scene.

I get it. There’s a natural instinct to pack as much as possible into the first page. The worry is often that agents considering fiction novels are only reading those first chapters, and you want them to get a sense of where the story is going. You want to show them your work.  

But this isn’t maths, remember. This is magic.

Opening a novel isn’t formulaic. There can’t be a single step by step guide that fits every story idea and everybody’s writing process.

So hold back that panicked voice in your head and start writing. Allow yourself the freedom to set the scene, the mood, the voice. For now, reel us in.

Too much exposition can kill the drama. Backstory will come later. By all means, let us know the time period, give us a few clues of what’s to come. But leave space for character development and for the plot to unravel slowly.

This is your moment to hook us. We can figure out the other bits as we go. Trusting your reader to follow you is crucial, but you have to give them a good reason to stick around in the first few lines. Because the worst thing you can do is be boring – especially in our modern world of infinite options.

Less really is more

The second most common mistake I see when I’m reading a novel’s opening is over writing.

Again, authors are worried that an agent won’t get to see their beautiful turns of phrase or literary skills in just a handful of pages. They fixate on some of their favourite sentences, the ones they might consider to be profound or especially well-written.

The problem is that, as experienced writers know, those beautiful moments should be sprinkled throughout the book, because that’s where they have the most impact, and because the story must take centre stage. It has to.

If your writing is underscored by panic, you may end up trying to showcase your talent in those first scenes. That can result in an excessive focus on highlighting your ‘writing skills’. You might even (inadvertently) prioritise those skills over the character development or the story. And if you do that, you’re going to lose us.

No series of words strung together, however beautiful they might be, will ever be enough to trump or replace the time you are given to grab and hold on to the reader.

When you open a novel, you need to give compelling answers to a few questions. Why should we stick around? What story are you going to tell me? Who are we meeting? What’s happening in their lives?

Stop second guessing yourself and start writing your story. You’ll never have a great opening if you don’t write!

The most important ingredient to open a novel is the stakes

The question of how to open a novel simply couldn’t be answered without thinking about setting your story’s stakes. These are the key to novel writing.

They could be anything. Is someone on a flight that’s about to crash? Has a character’s sister just been selected to fight other children to the death in a televised event? Is a woman running away from something or someone we can’t see, deep in the woods? Has someone just been left at the altar?

Story starts because something has or is about to change for your main character. It’s often a life interrupted, nudged onto a different path or direction. Give us our inciting incident in the first few pages, if not the first scene.

Story can only live where a spanner is thrown into that character’s daily life. Always consider what the stakes are when you’re deciding how to start a novel.

Starting with a prologue

Prologues come in and out of fashion in novel writing. Personally, I love a good prologue, especially if it’s a glimpse of what is to come.

There’s something about an author using the first sentence or the first page to drop us into the middle of the bad thing or the difficult thing, the thing that will come much later, showing you just enough of a peek to grip you, before yanking you away.

When done well, and if it’s right for your book, a good prologue can be the answer you’re looking for.

Tips for writing your novel opening

If you’re still feeling stressed or worried about the beginning of your novel, let me share a couple of key points which might help settle your nerves as you work through the writing process.

1. Don’t worry so much about the first section when you start a novel

The truth is that first chapters are difficult to write. They feel like they’re extremely important (and they are), but they will often change and morph as you write the book.

The more you get to know your novel, your characters, where the tension lies, as you unravel those knots, the more secure you’ll feel about where the story actually begins. You’ll be able to create intrigue in your opening sentences, that captivates readers and makes sense in light of the rest of the story.

For most novels, what ends up being the first chapter in the published version was not there (or at least not the first paragraph) in the first draft. Take the pressure off for now! Writing a novel involves a lot of self editing.

2. Go back to basics

When in doubt, go back to the basics. Pick up a bunch of your favourite books and read their opening scene to learn by example. Spend time with them. Dissect them, analyse them, look at why they felt so real and believable to you.

Ideally, focus on opening chapters in the genre you’ll write in and pick your absolute favourites. Why do they work so well?

When something does work, it’s more of a feeling than anything we can put into a list or a blog post. So when my authors are stuck, I always tell them to go read something stunning (and I do the same if I’m stuck on a particularly tricky edit).

Because the most important piece of advice anyone can give you as a writer is that to be a good writer you have to first and foremost be an excellent reader.

I’ll leave you with this brilliant quote, and then it’s time to start your novel:

A fine balance between confusion, mystery and illumination… It’s a tightrope walk, that first chapter. You want the reader drawn in by mystery but not eaten by the grue of confusion, and so you illuminate a little bit as you go – a flashlight beam on the wall or along the ground, just enough to keep them walking forward and not impaling themselves on a stalagmite.
— Chuck Wendig

Members of The Novelry can enjoy a writing class with advice from Marilia in our Catch Up TV Area.

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Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team