Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Where to begin?

Some immortal opening lines exist. One of my favourites is from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol: Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do

Or Douglas Adams, from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: This time there would be no witnesses.

Like it or not, the opening line of a novel is often critical to its success. A strong opening line makes readers sit up and pay attention. Now what? they’re likely to ask. Speaking as an editor, I am often highly critical of how an author opens her novel, looking not only at the impact of the opening line, but also where in the story an author decides to draw us in.

Stop and think about the person who’s going to read your book. In epublishing you usually get to choose an excerpt from somewhere in the novel where something exciting happens, and the excerpt is usually what potential readers look at on a website before they buy. But if you’re holding a book in your hand, at a bookshop or in a library, for instance, many potential readers will look at the cover then look at the blurb on the back. If they’re still interested after that, chances are good they’ll read the first few paragraphs of the novel to see if they’ll gel with it.

This is make or break. If a novel doesn’t grab a reader there, chances are good they’ll put it back on the shelf. I know I’m like that. Likewise, when I’m reading submissions while wearing my editor’s hat, I want an author to grab me from the start. I want to see a protagonist who’s busy doing something.

Most often an author will lose me at a number of points if their opening isn’t good enough. Bear in mind this is often after I’ve given the author the benefit of the doubt after plodding through a poorly written query letter and synopsis, so if I reach the actual submission and the author’s done a hash job there, these are the most common reasons I’ll say “Thanks, but no thanks”.


Prologues must die. In 99 percent of the instances I’ve encountered prologues they’ve either given away key plot bunnies or they’re a thinly veiled attempt at squeezing in back-story. The mark of a good prologue is a short piece of writing with a high degree of tension that acts almost as an advertisement enticing readers to plunge into the story. If you want some good lessons on how to write prologues, go take a look at the big-name authors out there and really analyse how they do it. In most cases, I’ll suggest my authors lose their prologues and a novel is often much stronger for it.


Yes. I agree. There are some big-name authors out there who get away with writing in reams and reams of exposition when opening a novel. I’ve also seen some big-name authors fail miserably (yes, I’m looking at you, Anne Rice). Until you are the next Stephen King, do yourself a humungous favour and resist the temptation of starting your epic saga with exposition. If you simply must share the information, find inventive ways to weave it in later, in small doses, when the need for the reader to have the information is relevant. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had a point when he said “Less is more” and apart from applying this to architecture, it works well for fiction. Don’t bombard your readers with facts right at the start of the novel. Trust me, after reading hundreds of similar-starting submissions, my eyes glaze over within the first two paragraphs.

A character waking.

I’ve lost track of how many submissions I’ve read starting where a character wakes. You know what, this is a really boring way to start a novel. It’s so boring, I’m not going to bore you further by going on about it.

A character involved in some mundane task.

Although not as plentiful as instances of a character waking, I’ve often encountered novels that start with a character engaged in some mundane task, usually at his/her place of work. I usually read a little further, usually a paragraph or three more than I would have with the “waking in the morning” scenario but when things don’t get any better soon, I stop reading. Enough said.

A nebulous he/she.

There is nothing more annoying when a novel starts describing the inner thoughts and physical doings of a nebulous he or she. Kick off with a character in a setting and jump in with chapter one. People like to know fairly soon how old a character is and some juicy bits, but please also refrain from resorting to the “character admiring his/herself in the mirror routine”. That’s a lazy way to introduce character attributes in chapter one and should be avoided at all costs. It’s so cliché I don’t even point and laugh any more.

So, what must you do? Find that opening line that excites you and makes you want to read further. Then introduce your main character doing something exciting. If she’s a bug collector who’ll later go onto collecting an alien, show her stalking and perhaps not capturing a rare butterfly. This will set the tone later for when she’s facing that ravening, face-hugging alien. Is your character a werewolf who can’t shift when he’s under stress? Bring him into the story at a point where his being able to shift is the only thing saving him from certain disaster.

See what I’m getting at? Now go out and write exciting stories!


Rita Vetere said...

Hey Nerine,

One of my favorite opening lines is also from a Stephen King novel, The Mist:

"This is what happened."

How can you not read on? Gotta love King.

Enjoyed the post, Nerine.

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