They say that the first line of a novel, short story, or any other work of literature for that matter, is crucially important. If you can’t grab the reader by the scruff of the neck right from the start, then there’s no point in going on. It’s a pity, because I’d be willing to bet that there are some really good novels out there – perhaps even The Great American Novel, that have never been read or published because the first few words were a let down. So what are some elements that a really good opening line has to have in order to pass the acid test of reader perseverance?
I decided to pick, at random, books that have been recognized as copper-bottom page-turners to see if there is a common theme.
From the New York Times bestseller list, McNally’s Dare, by Lawrence Sanders, begins: “I am lying facedown on the leather-padded massage table clad immodestly in my heather-gray briefs while a curvaceous masseuse in a rather abbreviated nurse’s uniform strokes by left hand, one finger at a time.” Here the hook is obviously sex. It targets the reader’s libido, curiosity and anticipation. Of course, if it turns out that nothing happens thereafter the reader is going to be slightly put out. But it does the trick.
Here’s the opening line of “See How They Run” by bestselling author James Patterson. “A benevolent midafternoon sun spattered golden streaks over the historic domes and needle spires, up and down the gray-yellow stones of the ancient Holy City walls.” This is less exciting but more evocative. There are enough adjectives in there for the reader to hope that the book is well-written. I reckon that James Patterson is successful enough not to go for shock tactics in the first sentence, but instead have readers rubbing their hands together in delight as they begin another bestseller. This opening sentence is more of a scene-setter.
Then there’s Stuart Woods’s “Orchid Beach”: “Holly Barker, with the rest of the crowd, was called to her feet as the panel of officers filed into the courtroom.” Again more scene setting, this time introducing a character. It whets the reader’s appetite for what happens next. Here he has gone in for grabbing the reader’s attention not so much in the first sentence as in the first paragraph or two. It’s a sign that the author has confidence; he knows the reader is not going to put the book down after reading the fairly ordinary first sentence. He’s got time to build interest.
Loren D. Estleman’s “Never Street” begins: “It was the summer of darkness.” Intriguing. What exactly does she mean by the paradoxical linking of the word “summer” with the word “darkness”. We want to give her a chance to explain.
“Bleeding Hearts” by Ian Rankin starts off: “She had just over three hours to live, and was sipping grapefruit juice and tonic in the hotel bar.” Cool. Another attention grabber. We are immediately alert. Who is this cool customer? What is she doing at the bar?
So, then, the only difference between the two styles is that on the one hand are authors who like to grab us from the get-go with the first sentence and others who are prepared to string it out over the first paragraph or two. Either way, whatever the novelist promises in the opening lines of a novel, they had better deliver. There is no point in writing a stunning opening line when the rest of the novel can be used as an antidote to insomnia.
So, now I come to think of it, what are my opening lines like? I just had to look. My first novel, "Lab Rat", begins: “The man slumped against Mill Flagdon’s main gate awoke with a conical heap of bat dung on his head.” Right. Okay. This had better be good. The second, "Four Degrees", starts off: “My brother Redford weighs 1,120lb.” Shock tactics. My third, “Muscle for Hire” opens with: “The bouncer at the door was typical of the bouncer class.” No shock there. Maybe I’m gaining confidence that the reader will read on for a few sentences. And my fourth, “The Blood Menagerie” kicks off: “Tate clambered over the garbage that was strewn beside the track.” Again, hoping the reader will read on for a few sentences, before deciding to buy the book.
So what can I glean from this hopelessly narrow sample? 1) The first sentence or two have to pique the reader’s interest. 2) Whatever you use as a hook, you have to deliver on in the course of the book. 3) You can’t have a long and winding sentence to start off with. No point in making the reader work hard from the outset. They’ll just put the book down and choose someone else’s. 4) The first sentence or two should set the scene for the opening action, and therefore should have all the elements the reader needs to picture the scene.
I’d be interested in hearing comments on what other qualities the opening sentence should have. Fire away.