While most novels start with the main narrative, alternative beginnings can sometimes add that extra pizzazz that makes your opening stand out. Here are a few examples. (Click on the cover images at the associated web links to read these openings).
Screenplay – Kate Morton’s book The Shifting Fog</em> (released overseas as The House at Riverton) starts with part of a film script set in 1924. A young man is standing by the lake near Riverton Manor on the night of a party. A shot rings out. A woman screams. The film fades to black. The novel continues with a letter written to Mrs Grace Bradley in 1999 asking if she would be a consultant on a film based around events that happened at Riverton when she was a young maid. This opening works well because it sets up the mystery and we want to know more.</li>
Story – Another of Kate Morton’s books, The Distant Hours</em>, begins with an extract from a children’s story called The True History of the Mud Man by Raymond Blythe. As we learn more about the story’s origins, dark secrets are uncovered that have affected the lives of Raymond’s three daughters ever since. This is an intriguing opening that foreshadows the series of events at the crux of the novel. The last 80 pages of twists and turns are among the best I’ve ever read.</li>
Newspaper extract – The Bourne Identity</em> by Robert Ludlum starts with two newspaper extracts about the hunt for an assassin wanted in connection with murders in Paris. Although we don’t know the significance of the information at this point, the newspaper reports cue us into the action. We know we’re about to read a spy story filled with danger and intrigue.</li>
Letter – Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction</em> by Sue Townsend begins with a 2002 letter in which Adrian asks Prime Minister Tony Blair to send a note to his travel agent confirming that Saddam Hussein has weapons that could reach Cyprus in 45 minutes. Otherwise, Adrian has no hope of getting back the deposit on his cancelled Cyprus holiday. With an opening like that, we know we’re in for a whimsical ride.</li>
Prayer – The Color Purple</em> by Alice Walker starts with prayers/letters that Celie writes to God detailing sexual abuse she has experienced. It’s a graphic and devastating way to begin and makes the reader feel for Celie’s plight from the outset.</li>
Like anything, alternative openings can be overused. Some of the guidelines we looked at regarding prologues also apply here. If you’re just using it as a gimmick or to do a back story dump, leave it out. However, it could provide a great hook for the reader and set up the story in an interesting way. Have you come across other types of openings? I’d love to hear your examples.