Last week, I posted about the false finish; this week I’m looking at the other end of the spectrum – the start of the novel. The editing process I’m going through with TPF has brought this question into sharp focus, but it’s perennial in the field of writing and editing.
We all know that a good opening is crucial. The first line should be perfect, the hook irresistible and the opening 3 or 5 chapters pack enough punch to make an agent / publisher request the rest of the manuscript. We also know that a good opening is generally not a good opening if chapter 2 is a massive flashback to cover the back story. That just means you started in the wrong place in order to hit an easy hook.
Next week, I’ll consider where to start – the answer to which both is and isn’t “at the beginning” – but for now, let’s look at how. Some novels have incredibly strong, famous opening lines. Some incredible strong, famous novels, don’t. But if you’re looking for greatness, it’s not a bad place to begin.
1. Novelty: Look for something the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve seen a hundred times before. “It was a dark and stormy night” was arguably a bad opening even before it became a trope, because it just sounds so familiar.
2. Theme: Think of the class reading your novel five, fifty or a hundred and fifty years into the future. They will have been told to identify the themes (for example marriage and love, revenge and redemption, whatever). Then they will be writing an essay on how you introduced the themes. These students will thank you endlessly if your opening line is a great big pointer to at least one of the themes. One of the most famous (in a good way) opening lines ever is from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen jumps right in there and tells us it’s going to be a novel about marriage. She gave a couple of other pointers in the title too – I like to think she had my high school years in mind.
3. Interest or Intrigue: Introduce the story without giving us too much information. Intrigue the reader – who is talking? what’s happening? where is this taking us? and perhaps most importantly … why? Information is for later, possibly even later on page 1; the opening line is about reeling us in.
4. Well-written: Your reader has read the blurb on the back cover, but he wants something different from the opening line. The blurb made them want to read the story, the first line has to make them want to read the second line and the third and fourth. And that means they have to enjoy your writing style as well as what you have to say.
5. Consistency: If you think of the most wonderful, catchy, well-written first line ever written, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the novel, it’s not the best first line for this novel, it’s the worst. Maybe another day, you will write the novel which stems from this line, but if you glue greatness to greatness you might still end up with a mess (Imagine the Mona Lisa pasted onto the Venus Di Milo). The best first line for this novel, is one that goes with it – has the same tone and style, is relevant and interesting.