The importance of being….Precise in your opening sentences

We all know how important it is to grab the reader right away. When I mark students work, I often find myself making very similar comments about their opening lines. If the character, and their specific orientation in a scene is made clear in the first few lines I tend to praise that. If not, I tend to miss it. I’ve often added comments that these components are important because they focus the reader on what is happening, and to who. It is only recently stepping, back, that I have wondered how good this is as advice – and I’ve looked to great literature for answers!

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love 

The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.

Two main characters are placed in a specific place. There is even some weather to flesh out that setting (which will prove deeply important to the plot). A lot is made very clear in a very short space.

Michel Faber’s Under The Skin has this opening –

Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles; a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.

There is so much achieved in these opening lines too. Yes, a main character is rooted in a scene. We also get a sense of her motivation- to ‘pick up men.’ But we are unclear as to what that means, and again this will prove important to the whole story. Does she want to pick up men just for sex? Why was there the use of that strange word ‘specimens’? We’re only two lines in, and already very much we’re off and running.

I’ve noticed that often – unsurprisingly, the reality with most openings to novels are a little more complex than the basic rule I had in bold, above. Yes, great novels often clearly offer what I’ve mentioned above. But perhaps even more importantly, really good literature often weaves its biggest theme into the opening lines. A couple of lines somehow exploring their theme before rooting the main characters specifically in a sitting seem the most a reader can handle without specific details. I’ve noticed a lot of beginner writers explore the themes of their stories for just a bit too long- sometimes much too long- before orienting their characters in the landscape of their story. Under The Skin weaves in the main theme- of a predatory character – into the very start.

As an example of the ‘thematic’ opening, let’s take a look at the opening lines of Helen Cross’ My Summer Of Love 

Today, the weather has the exact same temperature it had the day two people died. I’ve never seen the same numbers displayed before. Though perhaps because of what happened then, I’m obsessive and peculiar about weather; I could probably name as many weathermen as jockeys and brands of vodka.

It all started with a wedding, if you believe…

Here, Cross takes longer to establish where the character is but we get a sense of a dangerously hot, perhaps even feverish summer. This is key to what happens next. By the way, can anyone name the hugely influential novel by another female writer which this start seems to mimic?

Now let’s look at a perhaps slightly different opening. To get my disclaimer in, I’m a huge Morrissey fan. (If students of powerful writing are looking for examples of sharp descriptive writing, I’d suggest they look no further than the wonderfully witty evocations of England in his song Now My Heart Is Full). But some critics struggled with his novel, List Of The Lost. Let’s take a look at its opening lines-

Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy. You’d dig hard and deep to excavate four names quite so unusual. Yet there they were and there they stood, sounding exactly like what they were. You would be offered a hearty shake of the javelin hand as expressions of possession of command from the four boys, each developed into the blissful torment of their turnabout twentieth year…

Here we have four characters but no sense of where specifically they are in a scene (they are conceptually floating, or where we would shake their hands’ they are) and no clear sense of a theme. The novel is taking slightly longer to get its claws into us.

Do people have any other novel openings they think offer a good example of how to start a story?

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