writing craft | craft | writing for adults
August 1, 2017
by Jeff Vasishta
A newspaper headline serves one purpose–to make you want to read the article beneath it. The opening sentence in a novel tries to do something similar. It should make you want to read the second sentence, which then tries to make you read the third, until you have read the first paragraph and then the first page. It’s a feat that’s not easily accomplished, particularly with literary agents and editors who have the attention span of a gnat.
Keeping an agent interested until the end of the first page is akin to a soldier surviving the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan. They are looking for faults in every word and every sentence. There’s nothing more an agent wants to do than to close your manuscript, fire off a polite thanks but no thanks e-mail and attend to the hundred more submissions that just now landed in their inbox. By looking at some awesome openings of books, we’ll attempt to figure out how to survive the rejection minefield.
Let’s get one thing straight. This is an uneven playing field. If you are Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri or J.K. Rowling, their agents and publishers will be more forgiving. For the debut novelist, however, the opening lines mortality rate is immense. Literary field dressings, stretchers and splints need to be at the ready. And by the way, a disclaimer–if I could nail this part of writing books myself instead of recognizing it in others, I’d be a million selling author along with Franzen and the like.
If you’ve ever attended a workshop featuring literary agents you’ll probably witness an opening lines panel. The one I attended recently was called “Slush Pile Live.” Brave writers attempt to read the first page from their manuscript and agents tell them when to stop (i.e., when they themselves would stop reading and move on to the next submission). It’s like getting yanked off stage with a hook. Certain themes of what not to do become commonplace. These are:
1. Overwriting. The author is so intent on impressing the agent with their wonderful prose that there is no sense of a story unfolding or drama or intrigue. The end result is confusion and a quick rejection.
2. Boring. Don’t start writing about the weather or some quaint slice of life. Start with the protagonist hanging off the edge of a cliff. Something that will make the reader want to know what happens next. Ditto for a big dollop of yawn-inducing exposition (backstory). In the music business, A&R men used to have a saying, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” The same is true in writing. Don’t be crass about it but try to pull the reader in with some kind of a hook.
3. Clichés. Agents have told me that they read a lot of openings where someone gets on a plane and starts reflecting on their life or a protagonist sees someone they thought were dead. Another common one is a protagonist squinting in the sunlight after a crazy night trying to put the pieces together of what happened. A naked partner may or may not be lying in bed next to them.
4. Prologues. Take this one with a grain of salt. Many agents hate them but I’ve read a few books recently that have great prologues. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest is one that springs to mind. The author received $1,000,000 advance for the novel, which went on to be a best seller. So, agents don’t always know what they’re talking about. Bear that in mind the next time you get a “While your writing is very good, unfortunately…” type response.
Now that you know some things you should not to do, here are some things you should do.
There are dozens of websites that give examples of generally accepted great openings from novels throughout the years and it’s always good to have a browse through these, to get the general gist of things. However, I think that more recently there has been far greater emphasis on the opening sentences and paragraphs of novels than ever before and over the years the kind of openings agents and publishers look for has changed a little bit. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule as to what a publishing professional is looking for but it bears taking a look at some big breakthrough novels and seeing what it was that got the author the green light. A good place to start is Amazon where you can usually browse the first few pages of a book.
I loved the opening of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold The Dreamers, which not only netted the debut author a cool million advance but proved all the aforementioned points.
“He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his resumé. He hadn’t even owned a resumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him…”
The first sentence makes you wonder what type of a person doesn’t wear a suit to an interview? It immediately piques curiosity. The second and third sentences support the first, letting the reader know the setting–New York. By now we’re interested in knowing more about the man and what’s going to happen in his interview. It also does something else important–endears us to the protagonist. We’re on his side. Here’s a man about to try and do something he’s never done before, has had to ask for help to prepare himself, and we are rooting for him.
Phillip Meyer’s debut novel, American Rust is another where our sympathies are immediately with the protagonist and our curiosity stimulated. There are few things more endearing that the grieving for a dead parent, because we can all relate. On top of this the protagonist, though 20, is a man/child and emotionally fragile.
“Isaac’s mother was dead five years but he hadn’t stopped thinking about her. He lived alone in the house with the old man, twenty, small for his age, easily mistaken for a boy."
You can see, also, from Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance, that creating a sense of longing between a parent and a child never fails to pull on the heartstrings.
“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places.”
J.K. Rowling is one superstar author who has made first lines something of an art form, whether with her Harry Potter novels or more recent Robert Galbraith detective books. The beginning of Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone had this unforgettable opening:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
There’s a lot packed into this. The name and address along with the “proud” and “thank you very much” gives the sense that the Dursleys are uptight people who are very concerned with their standing and reputation. That first sentence makes us not like them. But then Rowling throws in “strange and mysterious” and she hits the intrigue button. Now we want to know exactly what they could possibly be involved in. And because we don’t like them we want to see them take a fall.
In her recent Robert Galbraith novel, Career of Evil, she goes for the jugular, if you’ll excuse the pun. This drops us straight into the midst of the action.
“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood. A dark line like a parenthesis lay under the middle fingernail of his left hand. He set to digging it out, although he quite liked seeing it there: a memento of the previous day’s pleasures. After a minute’s fruitless scraping, he put the bloody nail in his mouth and sucked. The ferrous tang recalled the smell of the torrent that had splashed wildly onto the tiled floor, spattering the walls, drenching his jeans and turning the peach colored bath towels–fluffy, dry and neatly folded–into blood-soaked rags.”
There’s nothing subtle about this. We are dealing with a man who has zealously murdered a female (not sure yet if it’s a woman or girl). It’s horrific and appalling and we as the reader already want revenge. By getting the reader emotionally involved, Rowling has done her job. Of course, readers will be aware that Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling so there will be a certain amount of trust going into this novel that they will be getting a great story. A debut novelist may risk losing the queasy reader with such an opening.
The opening of your novel is a place you especially can’t afford to play it safe (you shouldn’t want to play it safe anywhere) because you simply have to stand out from the crowd. One thing all writers must know is that you won’t be able to win over everyone but by writing something compelling you’ll stand a much better chance than if you made some of pitfalls mentioned earlier. \
Scottish writer Kerry Hudson took the all or nothing approach with her debut Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. What a title first of all! The opening lines, which describe a working class woman from Aberdeen, Scotland in childbirth is so expletive ridden that I couldn’t possibly quote it here. Suffice to say, that the agent who signed the novel, which went on to win a bunch of literary awards, said after an opening like that she simply had to read on.
Though it’s impossible to guarantee a blueprint for an opening that’s sure to keep picky readers enthralled, here are some things you should keep in mind:
Edge Of A Cliff: This is also known by the term in medias res, latin for “in the middle of things.” Start your novel in the middle of the action when what is at stake is clearly defined. Your central character is in a dilemma or doing something unusual like throwing a dead body off a boat in the middle of the night. Mostly used in thrillers but can work in other novels as well.
Endearing Character: If we are on a character’s side early on, we’re likely to want to read on and root for them (e.g., someone who has lost a parent or child or who is in danger).
Create An Emotional Response In A Reader: This is closely linked to the previous one but it can be broader. Humor is always a good bet. If they are laughing they’ll want to carry on. Here are few that will bring a smile to your face:
"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” —Roald Dahl, Matilda
"I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.” —W.H. Manville, Breaking Up
"It was the day my grandmother exploded.” - Iain Banks, The Crow Road
Intrigue: Again could be closely related to the Edge Of A Cliff opening but also allows for story telling. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods started like this:
“Shadow had done three years in prison.”
Of course we want to know exactly why he’d done three years in prison.
Tell A Story From A Central Character’s POV: Don’t mess about. Get straight into the story telling through the mind of one of the characters and make it compelling, like this line from Lee Child’s novella, High Heat:
"The man was over thirty, Reacher thought, and solid, and hot, obviously.”
The fact that the man was “hot, obviously,” adds enough intrigue to want to know more.
There are many permutations of these. I went to a workshop once where agents loved the landscape (describing the scenery) beginning of a writer’s novel, but I can’t help think had I tried the same thing, a rejection notice would have quickly been dispatched. Perhaps he caught them on a good day. And, I’m sorry to say, it can really be as simple as that–catching an agent or publisher on a day that their phone isn’t ringing off the hook and the inbox is empty, so they can really take their time with your opening. Often your opening maybe read by an intern and it may be luck that you make it off the slush pile. However, all things considered, if you try to avoid the mistakes of many and adhere to what has helped make recent success, you’ll stand a good chance of getting a reader onto page two.
If variety is the spice of life, Jeff Vasisht ’s writing career is a vindaloo. As a music journalist with Rolling Stone, Yahoo, and Billboard, he’s interviewed Prince, Beyonce, and Quincy Jones. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, along with Richard Price and Ann Patchett have been quizzed by him for Interview Magazine and he also writes about gentrification for amNEWYORK.