A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Openings. They are important.
Not ALL important. Let’s not get carried away. Middles and endings are obviously still doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making a novel enjoyable. People will try to tell you that the beginning is the MOST IMPORTANT THING because it’s the first thing a reader is confronted with… but this is not always the case. Personally, because I’m aware that authors agonise over their first few lines to the point of bleeding from their eyes, most of the time I tend to open books at a random page, somewhere in the middle, just to see what the writing is like when they’ve relaxed a bit. To me, that’s the true test. After all, you’re not buying a book for a great first page, you’re buying it for a great STORY.
That’s not to deny that openings, especially first lines, nan make a big impression. Amazing first lines can enter the common vocabulary, even among those who’ve never read the book at all. Most people know the really famous ones, like the first lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”) and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt…”) and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times…”).
So: openings. They are important. Readers (even the tricksy ones, like me!) who have chosen to give your book their attention are going to end up at the beginning when they start to read in earnest, and we don’t want to lose them there. With any luck, some people may even re-read your book one day, and rediscover your opening with a rich sense of appreciation for how you set up your novel’s implicit promises and then beautifully delivered on them. At least, that is what we WANT to them to feel.
The beginning of your novel needs not only to capture a reader’s interest initially, but also be truthful to the story that you’re about to offer up. You need to make promises which intrigue a reader and draw them into your story’s world – but ones that you’re fully capable of and intending to fulfill.
I once started watching an anime at episode two without realising it, and boy was that a mistake, because I missed the fact that the entire series was actually a flashback to the main character’s golden happy life before demons came and devoured everyone, leaving him alone and miserable.
You can imagine how furious I was with the makers of that anime when demon time came and EVERYONE DIED, before I realised the fault was actually mine, and that they had set up the whole thing not as a high fantasy adventure coming-of-age tale (which was what I thought) but a Gothic-horror revenge/tragedy (which, to be fair, it delivered on). Don’t do this to your readers on purpose! It’s not big, and it’s not clever.
I’m particularly interested in first lines because I never seem to be able to start work on a book until the main character has ‘spoken’ the first line to me. I know this sounds weird. It IS weird. But that’s just the way I roll. I can plan, plot, sketch character’s faces, draw maps, use up whole pads of Post-Its, but until I ‘hear’ the character speak, I can’t actually start the writing.
Let’s have some examples! Spoilers here for my book The Swan Kingdom, so if you haven’t read it but want to and also care about spoilers…er… go away now? Go watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, it’s awesome. OK. For The Swan Kingdom, PoV character Alexandra piped up to tell me:
My first memory is of the smell of sunwarmed earth.
That line sets the tone for the rest of the story, instantly showing the reader the dreamy, sensory ‘voice’ they’re about to be immersed in. It encapsulates the important themes of the book – a book about childhood, memories, about the earth and feeling a connection to it. Probably not a story where there will be heaps of fast-moving actions scenes. And it’s a sort of mirror image of the final line too, which is:
In the end, I know all will be well.
The first line talks about the first thing the heroine remembers. The last one talks about ‘the end’. It’s a retelling of a fairytale, and the first line serves as ‘Once upon a time’, while the last one is my version of ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.
Some great first lines from writers I admire!
Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolomore:
The audience didn’t understand a word we sang.
I’m not really sure why that worked for me, it just did. And again, once you read on, you realise that the PoV character’s sense of isolation and loneliness while living in a foreign country is a very important part of her character arc. Promise made and delivered on.
What about this opening line which sent a shiver down my spine?:
Mommy forgot to warn the new babysitter about the basement.
That’s from The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong, and, again, it warns you exactly what is coming up next. Spookiness. Lots of spookiness.
But there’s more to this. If you raise a question in your opening, you need to be sure that it’s important to the story over all. By which I mean, not that you need to set your main conflict up right there in the first line, but that you need to understand what tone you’re creating and what expectation you’re raising. Let’s say your first line is:
I never knew how much a dead goldfish stank until Mark Hinkey put one down the back of my shirt in biology.
If your story is going to be a snarky and hilarious contemporary story about school bullying, you’re fine. If your story is going to be about an teenage outsider who is obsessed with death and figures out she can speak to ghosts, again, you’re fine. If your story is going to be about a modern teen who falls in love with the school bully and has to figure out how to make it work, or how to let him go, fine.
If, on the other hand, your story is going to be a historical fantasy? This is a problem. But less obviously, if the story really has nothing to do with the school setting, if bullying is not a theme and never emerges again, if there’s no grim, stinky-dead-goldfish undertone to the tale, then this opening line is not right. It’s a great first line, but it’s not setting up the right expectations for, say, a lyrical, dreamy story about a girl dealing with losing her sister to drowning. Just like:
Emma watched the sea turn to molten copper as the sun rose. The jagged rock spires cast black shadows onto the sand, like fingers of darkness reaching out to draw her under the waves.
Is a nice opening, but NOT for a hilarious and snarky story about contemporary bullying. Historical fantasy? Yep. Lyrical dreamy story about girl losing sister to drowning – yes. Even a novel about starcrossed love between killer mermaids, if you felt like it. Snarky hilarious story in which the sea plays no significant part? No.
A truly great opening is about preparing the ground for the story to come, giving readers an accurate sense of the world and characters with whom they are going to be spending time and investing their emotions if they read on.
An important note here: I see a lot of people (often influential people) talking about how an opening must GRAB people, how the best beginnings PLUNGE readers into adventure or danger, how you should literally begin your story right where the ACTION starts. Now, aside from how violent this all sounds, can I just call bull on that ‘All Stories Must Be Like The Stories I Like’ stuff please?
Some truly brilliant books start this way, yes. But not every story can possibly fulfill that sort of promise and not every reader enjoys being grabbed and plunged (or, if they do, they don’t want it in every book they read). I’ve seen very bad openings for really good books come about as a result of this type of advice. Openings like this (details changed to protect the guilty and the innocent):
“Aliana Bronwen Menzies-Fitzwilliam! Get back here!”
This sort of opening, with the main character’s name being shouted, is not only overused, but is *inefficient*. Because what do we get from it? Only the main character’s (normally over long and rather too euphonious to be probable) name, which can easily be revealed to us a dozen other ways, and the fact that he or she is in trouble. In an ‘Oh, look how CUTE, they’re using the full name because they’re cross!’ sort of way. What about:
“Go!” shouted, the commander. A bullet slammed home in his chest and he fell with a groan. John scrambled over his body, away from the flaring guns.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but because I know nothing about John or his commander and I’ve seen some version of this beginning about 6,000 times it ends up feeling completely generic and doesn’t engage my interest or emotions.
Openings like these follow the ‘grab, plunge, action!’ advice, but all too often they tell us nothing about the book’s tone, setting, characters or themes. Which means they can be actively misleading – for instance, if the person shouting is NOT cute, or the conflict that drives the story is far more about John finding his lost family than it is about him dodging bullets and obeying commanders. Don’t shove conflict into your opening if it doesn’t need to be there, and definitely don’t make up an artificial conflict that doesn’t lead organically into the important themes of your story just so you can tick the ‘Sense of immediacy in opening’ box.
Above all, the best openings are truthful. They will reflect what is best and most unique about your story and the way you chose to tell it.
Does this make sense to you folks? What are some of your favorite – and least favourite – types of openings?
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon. In 2015 the release of Frail Mortal Heart will complete her epic urban fantasy trilogy, The Name of the Blade, a tale of Kitsune, Kami and katanas. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency.