How Important is a Great Opening to a Novel?

 

I love opening a new novel. I love going through the bookshop – the smell of books – and I love finding that one that is going to take me away, curl round my brain like a cat and warm me into this whole other world. And one of the great things about new books, one of the reasons that I’ll take it to the counter, is the opening line or paragraph. I love a good cover, but more importantly, I love good writing, and that first section, for me, really sets the tone. A good opening will drop you right into the story and make it hard for you to leave. It will capture your imagination and almost force you to read on. It’s also a great learning tool for writers, working out how the great books begin, understanding how that can be applied to your story. There’s so much to learn from those first lines, it’s worth reading as many as you can to ensure you are using the best starting point for your story.

As an example, here are some of my favourite novel openings:

‘Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says “We really won’t die.”

With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.

You drill the holes wrong and the gun will blow off your hand.’

– Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk 

It’s so fast-paced and it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which all moves at breakneck speed. Palahniuk drops you right into the chaos and lets you work it out from there – a really good opening.

‘Until the telephone rang, the only sound in my office was the scratching of my pen as I made margins notes, corrections and amendments.

                I pressed the speaker button.

                ‘Carl speaking’

                ‘Carl’

                ‘Catherine! I meant to send you home hours ago…’

                She interrupted me: ‘I am home. I’ve been home, been out to see a film, eaten a pizza, paid the baby-sitter and watched the end of Newsnight.

                The clock on my desk read 11:42. I turned in my chair. The window of my office was floor to ceiling. Through the window, I could see the city glitter and the night sky. No stars – a low cloud layer made the sky glow almost red.

                Catherine continued: ‘I’m calling because the last train leaves in twenty-five minutes’.

The Coma by Alex Garland

This also sets the scene for the whole novel, the pace, the steady flow of the narrative. But again, Garland drops you right into the story, not pages of him living his normal life, but right here, right in the midst of where the action is about to take place. It’s an important note – you want to start your story at a compelling point, a point where people need to turn the page and find out what happens next. Granted, this scene is still somewhat commonplace, but we know the narrator is now out in the middle of the night and will struggle to make the train home – and we, as the audience, know what a frightening train journey that midnight trip can be.

‘About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that – well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been – or, more precisely, being about to be – hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who’s to say that these are genuine memories? Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap – the crater – that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.’

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Remainder is a real mind twister of a novel, looking at psychology and the depths of the human condition. This opening sets the scene really well – you get, from this, that the narrator was involved in accident in which something fell from the sky and damaged his brain. The novel is about how he doesn’t know what’s real anymore, what are memories and what’s imagined, and this opening clearly aligns to that theme. I like this because McCarthy has explained a lot very quickly, very cleverly, almost without you knowing it. But again, it drops you into the story, rather than starting with long-winded context or backstory.

‘He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d near chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn’t object, so I lit a Silk Cut. A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was fright, but I’d daydreamed how I’d be.

                He was bare and dead face-down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at. Over and over you saw Him stretched out then the pitch dark with his computer screen still on.’

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

The detached, confused emotion of the narrator streams all the way through Morvern Callar, and again, the author has dropped us right into the story, leaving Morvern at home with her deceased boyfriend – what will she do next? I also love the detail in this scene, the image of the Christmas lights flicking on and off gives it a real sense, an authenticity and feeling, through such a small but important detail.

Not every novel starts out by dropping you into the action like this, but the vast majority do. It’s a powerful tool, and an important lesson for writers to learn, that the story starts where the action does. Your readers will work out the details and you can communicate back story through their interactions within the narrative – in that sense, it’s like someone telling you a story in real life. People generally tell you the highlight, the most shocking element up front, then explain the detail of how it got to that point. That peak moment is the hook that will gets the audience in, and it’s important to use that to compel your readers to turn the page.

One other thing I’ve heard when discussing good opening lines is ‘yeah, but those are great novels’ – as if their own work could not, and should not, be compared to works of this calibre. But why shouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t you hold your own work up for comparison against the greats? If you want your book to stand side by side with them in a book store, you have to aspire to being compared with them on quality, on compulsion. It’s important you do compare your work to established authors, you should be as good as them. Every author of every book was once a nobody. They started with nothing behind them. A blank page. The only difference now is that they made it. So your work should be compared to them. Because that’s the way that you can make it too.

 

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