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That vital opening line

This piece is not only about openings, it IS the opening shot in the Faber Academy’s SUMMER 2014 BLOG TOUR, which kicks off on the lively DOT SCRIBBLES site. Here it is for the homebodies:

How far can an enticing opening line go towards selling your novel? In the innocent days when writers were advised to kill their darlings and to show rather than tell, the first sentence or two were seen to be vital.Now we know differently. We try and understand our darlings and are acutely aware that both filicide and streaking can land us in jail. As for that vital, lucrative opening sentence – in our current state of financial uncertainty, it takes a far more than a cute phrase to loosen the purse strings of a punter, publisher or not.

‘But wait!’ you say. ‘Where would Tolstoy have been without that immortal opening to Anna Karenina – you know, that stuff about happy families etc…? Or Moby Dick without that resonant “Call me Ishmael”?’

I wonder. Had I, in a position of fiscal power, come upon the words, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …’ I might have yawned and thought, maybe not. Orwell’s ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ on the other hand – that, without a doubt, is striking. It’s chicken and egg, though. What came first, the initial hook or the rich fictional terrain in its wake?

In my experience, it’s the latter. Only once the novel itself has achieved substance, its shape settled and its tone confirmed, does an apt opening line tend to occur.

Nestling between that snappy first line, though, and the long-haul fictional journey that demands suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, is the opening scene. And here it is vital that the stage (and parameters) are set for what follows. This scene serves as a kind of contract with the reader, setting the tone for what follows and promising that particular characters, in a particular place, at a particular time are important. Hence the vital questions I encourage new writers to ask of their novel opening:

–                  Why here? Is the setting for this first scene significant in the story?

–                  Why now? Is this the best point of entry to the story? What is special about this particular time – is it a high point? A low point? A crisis?

–                  Why these characters? Readers assume that a character on page one will feature largely in the chapters to follow and might feel a little cheated to discover that the pretty young girl who arrives with the tea trolley, say, is neither victim nor perpetrator but a casual employee who pops into the novel, never to be heard of again.

All the above, however, doesn’t preclude the importance of that essential hook for a reader, who has to be somehow intrigued. It’s one of those ineffable qualities, like charm or charisma. An irresistible invitation to share a secret? Something strange … ?

And so, while the first line may not be quite enough to sell a novel, the initial few paragraphs certainly can. Unless, like Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, you’re immortalised primarily for a seven-word opening to a novel few have read. Paul Clifford (1830) begins with the words that ‘Peanuts’ beagle, Snoopy, plagiarised for years. Even Snoopy, however, couldn’t get past the first phrase, for the tortuous sentence in its entirety reads: ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

And for those who’d like to follow the tour, here’s the full itinerary:

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