Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

It is precisely moments like this that confirm my belief that should audiences ever be subjected to Dan Holloway – the Biopic, it will be Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction Period, whose face lowers out of the screen at them.

OK, whilst I feel a little bad because it’s very brave to stick your head above the parapet and these are actually far better than most exemplars, I don’t feel too bad because if you’re a writer who sticks a hand up and says “I’m doing something good over here,” then I think it’s bundled in with your Ordnance Survey that it’s OK for a critic with a genuine concern for the literary landscape to go, “I’m not so sure you are.”

Less Than Zero

(Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis, which begins with my favourite opening line, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” – a line that basically gives a social history of America on the verge of the Reagan era in a single sentence)

So here’s the thing. Opening lines. Every writer knows what “My opening line’s had 137 times as much time spent on it as any other line-itis” feels like. but we also know, in our heart of cliched hearts, there’s a reason for that. And that reason is there are LOTS of books out there and readers don’t have time to “give us a chance” by spending minutes on the opening chapters, pages, or even paragraphs of every book in the store. Of course this doesn’t mean we should all sausage ourselves into a particular kind of opening, and of course there are other ways to get word of mouth going about a book that needs time to breathe but

1. writing opening lines is a hugely valued skill


2. if you profess to possess that skill, it’s probably good if you understand what the skilful bit of it involves.

Which brings me to this. There’s a really great post on Writer’s Digest about how to create a killer opening line. It’s here. Check it out. I know anything that says “there are x number of ways you can do y” is always incomplete and a bit naff, but there are great points, and the real thing is the opening sentences cited as examples are truly stellar. And they all do the one thing an opening sentence has to do (with the caveat always “if this is your genre/thing”) – they make you absolutely content to leave aside every other book ever written because you JUST HAVE to know where this is going. They range from the Bell Jar’s breathtaking “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” to the enigmatic insistence of “I am an invisible man.”

The matter becomes fuel for my righteous anger only when this new post enters the fray. In it, writers are asked to give examples of their opening sentences and use the categories of the Writer’s Digest post to explain why they think they work. We have 21 opening lines. Three of them are good (“I was twenty-one years old when I sold my baby” is very good [Songbird by Julia Bell]. “Ilo Sungila felt he could see all of war-torn Mozambique from the hilltop of his new agricultural supply store.” [Seeking the Light of Justice by Barry Nadel] is really very good, a couple of ersatz words away from being superb). Many of them feature somewhat too many full stops to be considered a line.

But the real issue is this – it is worrying that there are so many writers, all of them writers who are, or who are touted as, at the pinnacle of the profession, who really don’t have a Scooby Doo about what how great opening lines work. When people talk about the importance of editing, it’s all too common for them to mean proofreading, if you’re lucky the kind of line editing that makes sure your character leaves the room in the same shirt she walked in wearing. But I am NEVER going to see how clean and consistent your text is if you don’t work with the kind of editor who calls out your generic, formulaic, more than a little muddled, “what do you even mean cadence and rhythm I’m a writer not a walking thesaurus” opening and doesn’t just suggest you change it but stands over you guarding the key to your coffee jar till you change it.

If this is the state writing finds itself in then I genuinely want to hold my head in my hands and sob. These are not bad sentences. But most of them really are bad *opening* sentences, and they’re bad opening sentences because the explanations of why the writers think they work shows that the writers understand neither the psychology (bluntly, you need to persuade the reader that there is no chance that in the entire of the rest of the bookstore and all the libraries in all the world they will find anything they’d rather spend the next few hours of the life with than the following pages of your book) nor the technique (see the original article) of what makes a good opening line good. The rationales given for these sentences all focus on what the sentence means TO THE WRITER. And sorry if I missed that class, but isn’t writing an opening line about grabbing THE READER.

You see, that’s where the magic happens. It happens when you, as a reader, feel like the author has trepanned you with their words, shone a light inside your skull and buried a mind control device deep inside there. Like any craft, the key to getting it right is starting by reverse engineering. And writers are all to wont to fail because we have this egotistical thing whereby we think what we’re reverse engineering is the writing. Of course the writing matters, and how the sentence is put together is key to getting it perfect, but what you’re reversing isn’t a sentence some writer has banged out on a keyboard. What you need to reverse engineer is a mind control device.

And that is why getting your opening line right begins not with your writing but your reading.


(Disclaimer – I am permitting myself to feel something other than just being a grumpy snark because I once won an opening line competition [“It’s nearly midnight and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.” if you want a giggle] that had over 1000 entries. Admittedly, that doesn’t make me much more than a grumpy snark.)


6 thoughts on “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

  1. For all we know every single great opening line was written by a grumpy snark, so don’t knock it.

    The great thing about at least attempting to create a great opening line is it embeds in us the ambition to grow from that point forward.

    (From someone who has never written one in his life).

    • “The great thing about at least attempting to create a great opening line is it embeds in us the ambition to grow from that point forward.”
      I think that’s an excellent way to look at it

    • I was having this conversation on Facebook. Absolutely agree – the last line is what makes you want the next book, amongst other things. The problem is that you have to be very careful when discussing last lines because of the spoilers!!

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