Two writers discuss the opening sentence and hooking the reader
Posted October 01, 2015 in
JENNY: Hurray, I've finished my latest novel! One hundred thousand words of carefully crafted narrative. From the war-ravaged mountains of Afghanistan (above) to the rugged ranges of Australia’s Great Escarpment – an epic tale of loss and redemption. Writing it was like running an emotional marathon.
Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I began my rewrites. Horror of horrors! A boring first paragraph stared me in the face. I needed to fix it, and quickly. I have to hand over the manuscript to my publisher in two weeks. How do I hook my reader with that first line? To gain inspiration, I read the first lines of novels chosen at random.
SYDNEY:And what an eye-opener that was! So many of them started with a reference to the weather. About 60 per cent, didn’t you think, Jenny? Descriptions of weather aren’t in themselves bad. If they strike a note of tension, they can be very good. A storm can be great if it opens, say, a haunted house story or a tale of pursuit and capture. But if the weather is there because the writer can’t think of a better way to open their novel, it’s Dullsville.
Here is an example:
“The day is hot, the air thick with the smells of the rainforest.”
The Inevitability Of Stars by Kathryn R Lyster
Then there were the openings that drop you right into the action through a piece of dialogue or movement.
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
“We should head to a bar and celebrate.”
Bared To You by Sylvia Day
“The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.”
A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge.
I know many readers like this. I never have. But, as my friends are at pains to tell me, I’m weird. You can’t go by what I like.
Then there are the opening sentences that were just plain dull for no particular reason.
I opened Sylvester, one of my favourite Georgette Heyer novels, and there before me lay a sentence utterly devoid of thrill:
“Sylvester stood in the window of his breakfast-parlour, leaning his hands on the kedge, and gazing out upon a fair prospect.”
I forgive her because her novels were amongst my early teachers. If I have any skill at all as a writer, it’s thanks to her. I learned wit from her. I learned the long and vivid character introduction from her. I learned the witty thrust and parry of dialogue between hero and heroine from her. And let us praise the heroine who can take care of herself. That’s not Heyer’s invention, but she ran with it as no one had before. So I tried another Georgette Heyer, this one The Corinthian.
“The company, ushered by a disapproving butler into the yellow saloon of Sir Richard Wyndham’s house in St James’ Square, comprised two ladies and one reluctant gentleman.”
Better. The disapproving butler, and especially the one reluctant gentleman, strike notes of tension. The reader is invited to wonder why they’re there, and why the gentleman is reluctant. But it’s too long, thanks to the nonsense about Richard’s posh address. Still, it’s a well-balanced sentence.
But when I look at first sentences, I want something more. I want a sentence that snags me on a strong yet delicate hook with a barb on the end that hurts if I try to wriggle free.
JENNY: I’ve listed my favourites below. Some encapsulate the conflict, compacting the entire story into a single sentence. Others state a truth or surprise me in some way.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The Dark Tower by Stephen King
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“He shouldn't have come back.”
Dark Country by Bronwyn Parry
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable child ever seen.”
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
“It is said that in death, all things become clear; Ensei Tankado now knew it was true.” Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
“The idea that love is not enough, is a particularly painful one.”
The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan.
“Every summer, Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife.”
Waiting: A novel by Ha Jin
“Bett-Bett must have been a Princess, for she was a King’s niece, and if that does not make a princess of anyone, it ought to do so!”
The Little Black Princess by Aeneus Gunn
“So I’m standing at my front gate and I’m soaked and it’d been the worst day in history.” Rough Diamond by Kathryn Ledson
“I see my father with that shovel.”
The Woods by Harlan Coben
“This was the way a world died.”
Ice Guard by Steve Lyons
And my personal favourite:
“All stories are about wolves.”
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Stephen King proudly boasts that he spends months crafting a first line. What do you think, Sydney? What is it about these lines that made them stand out?
SYDNEY: I go with most of your choices, Jenny. I have to say, though, that Richard Flanagan’s contribution strikes me as weak, thanks to its construction and verb choice. “The idea that love is not enough, is a particularly painful one.”
It might read better if it went something like this: “It hurts to know that love is not enough.” The construction here is stronger first because of the verb: in his version, he uses “is”, which is a nothing verb, while mine is “hurts”, which throbs with vitality. The position of the verb matters, too: mine is the second word in the sentence, which is a strong place to put it, right after the subject pronoun. His verb is buried in the middle of the sentence. Verbs are engines: they drive sentences. The stronger the verb, the stronger the drive. The fact that his version uses “is” twice merely compounds the problem.
Stephen King’s contribution is good: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” First, it’s about pursuit. Predators pursue their prey. At the same time, the moral ambiguity threatens to tumble it on its head: the prey wears black, the colour of villainy. Does the gunslinger pursue him because he’s done something evil? A two-hook sentence, the moral and the visceral, is an embarrassment of riches. Maybe I should read this novel!
As for Margaret Atwood’s selection, “All stories are about wolves”, the initial hook is the sheer mind-blowing breadth of the statement. That very fact caused me to pause and ponder. “Wolves” is a metaphor; she means all stories are about predators, and therefore, about their prey, since a predator is nothing without the creatures it kills and devours (wolfs down). In which case, contrary to first impressions, Ms Atwood is absolutely right.
And yet I can’t overlook the whiff of facetiousness in the sentence either. It begins to look as though I personally like a sentence whose layers can be unpacked and spread on the table. What do you think, Jenny?
JENNY: Interestingly, Margaret Atwood’s first line holds very true for my latest novel. I don’t expect a first line to do as much as you do, Sydney. It must hook the reader, true, but it can do this in a variety of ways. Summarising the conflict, like the first line of Lolita. Stating a general truth, like Leo Tolstoy and Richard Flanagan do. By the way, I like Flanagan’s construction.
Stating a simple yet interesting fact.
“I had a farm in Africa.”
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen.
An opening line that establishes an intriguing voice, Lolita again, or that surprises us, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis. All these work for me.
And thanks to this research and analysis, I now have my new opening line – one of the encapsulating-the-conflict variety. Now you’ll all have to buy my new book next year to find out what it is!
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She has written The Architecture of Narrative, soon to be published by threekookaburras. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.
Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and the romances, Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin). Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at: www.jenniferscoullar.com.