When you hang around writing forums, you read a lot, A LOT, about how to hook that agent, what makes you stand out from the all the other writers clambering for attention and one of the most common tips is to have a ‘kick butt’ opening sentence; something that forcibly grabs the reader and doesn’t let them go. It is said a lot of agents and publishers make their minds up about a manuscript in a split second, so you have to nail that first sentence.
Now, I have NEVER (ever, ever) stopped reading a book because the first sentence didn’t grab me. But I have the luxury of time on my side that agents don’t have and I can give a book as long as I like to decide whether I like it or not. And as for a magical opening sentence that captures me in some way – well, I can name only one occasion in the last few years, yes, count it, ONE, where I’ve even noticed how good an opening to a novel is.
“I always thought the next funeral I’d attend would be mine.” Simmering Season, Jenn J McLeod. Now that’s an opening that made want to read on.
Given this is the only example I can think of from the last five years of reading, I’m wondering, just how important is that first sentence?
Time for some (very scientific) research. To my bookshelf!
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling. A debut book that went on to be, well, I’m sure you all know how darn successful it went on to be. As an opening sentence, though, how does it rate? For me its only saving grace is the ‘thank you very much’, which hints at a style and humour I find appealing. But the rest of the sentence – meh.
“People disappear all the time.” Outlander, Diana Gabaldon. If you haven’t heard of Outlander, then you’ve been living under a rock. But what an average opening. “People disappear all the time” – yep, big whoop. Now if this was in front of an agent/publisher that made their mind up based on the first sentence alone, I reckon this would never have seen the light of day. The end of the opening passage, however, does hook the reader in, “…..Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.” That’s got me. If I’d quite after the first sentence, though, I never would have got to that bit.
“We have been lost to each other for so long.” From my favourite book of all time The Red Tent, Anita Diamant. What’s so special about that opening? Nothing, really. The rest of the prologue, (and I’d like to point out here that another tip we always see as beginner writers is NEVER start with a prologue), is beautifully, sublimely written, as is the rest of the book. Seriously beautifully written. But as a first sentence, while it’s ok, it’s hardly going to rock your world, though the book certainly will!
“Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder.” The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer. Another of my all-time favourites. There is nothing particularly special about that opening – a letter, and a regular ol’ beginning of a letter. In fact, as I read on I panicked when I realised the whole book was written in letters, but I soldiered on – I had, after all, picked it for our book club, so I’d darn well better read it – and I LOVED it. I mean totally LOVED it. Imagine what I would have missed if I’d given up on this after the first sentence, or even the first few pages!
“When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.” Me Before You, Jojo Moyes. Arguably the biggest thing in Women’s Fiction right now, totally taking the world by storm and the movie of this wonderful book is due out mid-year. But, as an opening sentence, how bland is that? And, she breaks the two biggest ‘rules’ for opening a novel. Never start with a prologue – this is a prologue. Never start with people waking up – this is people waking up. This isn’t Moyes’ first novel, and I guess once you’re established you can break any rule you want. After all, you have your agent and publisher and loyal following already. It certainly is her most successful so far, though, and I can’t help wondering if this hit an agent’s/publisher’s desk from a debut novelist, how many would simply say ‘no’ because of the opening?
I don’t think any of these examples are ‘kick butt’ sentences, yet they are some of the most successful novels in recent years. So where does that leave us?
I think I’ll turn the rest of the (very scientific) research over to you. What’s the best (or worst) opening line you’ve ever read in a novel? Was it indicative of how good (or bad) the novel was?