So, I have 8 seconds to convince you to pick a book from the shelf, take it to the checkout and buy it. 8 seconds! That is the average amount of time a potential reader lingers over a book. It seems very fast, but it also seems fair. Life is short and readers know what types of story they like and don’t like.
But what if they are misled? What if they are misled by the simple fact that their expectations of how a book should look is not met or that maybe the opening fails to convince them that this is the book they are looking for. We know that we can’t grab all of the readers all of the time. That is true of any ‘product’. But what if your book fails to grab those readers who really, really want to know about your novel. Because those readers will love it, they just don’t know it yet.
My blog post today is about shaping the opening of your novel. I had never quite delved into what makes an opening striking or conversely what makes the reader roll their eyes and put it back on the shelf. I always thought I crafted the openings of my novels with care. Considering that the Godfather of fiction, Stephen King spends months if not years perfecting the opening of his novels, I thought I should drag mine back to the ‘drawing’ or ‘writing’ board and get me to work.
Today’s writers may rush to say that it’s more important than ever to hit the reader over the head with an unforgettable opening. They may say that the modern reader has a short attention span and therefore the beginning of your novel needs to be extra special.
On that subject, in an interview earlier this year a well-known TV presenter turned novelist said that: “the stories of Jane Austen are wonderful but days are gone when you could take a leisurely approach to writing.” It made me wonder how long it had been since this person had picked up any of the classics. Because writing that cracking opening is not a new phenomenon, some of the best opening lines in literature are from the classics and what’s the most quoted, I hear you ask. Well, that’s from none other than Jane Austen.
Let’s have a look at how she begins her novel Pride & Prejudice and marvel at its unbeatable cleverness.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
How is this first line, or even the entire opening to be considered leisurely? In these 92 words we are given: the ironic tone of the narrator, more than a hint at the inciting event of the drama, the suggestion that any wealthy man coming into this society will be of romantic interest to more than a few families. Also as readers we recognise that the main storyline is likely to be a romance. So, so, so much in such a small amount of words. And not only that, but the narrator then dives straight into action with Mr. and Mrs. Bennets’ conversation on what should be done about Netherfield’s latest tenant.
How about James M. Barrie’s first line for Peter & Wendy:
All children, except one, grow up.
The author gives us the entire book’s premise in this one sentence. The opening is at once fun, fantastical and provides the hook for the novel. Who wouldn’t want to read on? This is the type of craft that makes all other writers want to give up. It is that clever.
Two of my favourite opening lines for children’s novels are JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Both openings share the fact that the narrator chooses to introduce us to the story through secondary characters. Both have a delightful wit, both give us a strong sense of setting and the promise that the setting is about to be disrupted by something foreign, be that an adventurous, precocious young girl or wizards.
Anne of Green Gables: Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.
It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
There is a definite doomsday ring to this opening. The plural ‘clocks’ and the calm weather suggest to the reader that in this world, clocks striking thirteen is not an abnormal occurrence. The strong narrative tone implies an unobtrusive and reliable narrator, which just adds to the vague sense of threat provided by this opening. This is suspense in concentrated form.
In the hugely popular, The Fault in Our Stars, John Green gives us the character’s voice, just a touch of humour, the protagonist’s age and hints that age is important, an insight into her relationship with her mother and a list of the character’s preferred activities. The use of the words ‘winter’ and ‘death’ in the following sample also focuses on some of the novel’s themes.
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
This opening triggers many questions in the reader’s mind. Why is a seventeen year old not socialising or eating and why is she thinking about death? If your opening does nothing else, it should set up questions for the reader.
What do nearly all of the favoured openings (and I don’t just mean the first line but the first few paragraphs) have in common?
- A very clear narrative voice
- Most give a sense of character, even in lines so short as the Peter and Wendy example or JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
- But what is most impressive is that most give a sense of the story as a whole, most great beginnings hint at an end or at the very least at the premise.
In reworking my own novel’s beginning I think I’ve finally hit on something I’m happy with, for a short while anyways or until the next edit when I’m sure to rewrite it again.
What are some of your favourite openings and why do you think they work so well?