Novel Beginnings: on opening sentences

Thanks to a post at Lust in Time, I began thinking about first lines and beginnings of novels, and the idea that novels are supposed to “grab” the reader from the beginning, or “start with a bang.” (I pause to enjoy mental hilarity on whether that means starting the story with a sex scene.) As I jokingly remarked in comments to the post, it’s easy to find a great opening sentence after about sixteen revisions.

I think an opening sentence with too many explosions, metaphorical or otherwise, can be disorienting. If there are too many events, descriptions, and characters flying in all directions, it’s hard to make sense of it all and rather than read on, I want to give up and go read something else. In my opinion, this style of opening seems to work best when the writer promptly pulls back afterwards, to give the reader a chance to assimilate what she’s been given and decide she wants to find out more. This kind of opening is more a teaser than a vehicle for information, but it works best if it carries both kinds of information. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” [The Crow Road, Iain Banks]

I think novels can start quietly, as well. A boring beginning won’t get you far, but sweating over the first sentence because it’s duller than the second sentence can be counterproductive. If you’ve just started writing your novel, I think it’s best to just put a first sentence down and move on. You can change it later. You may not change it later, but if you need to, you can. Chances are, once you get to the end of your draft, you’ll have a better idea of your story, and how that first sentence can be tied into its theme or plot or set up an important point of characterization. So by quietly, I don’t mean static. That first sentence should, if at all possible, serve a purpose. It should do something.

For instance, novels that start with description of the weather or landscape almost always feel static to me, and I don’t want to continue reading. Unless it’s written by a terrific prose stylist, that sort of opening doesn’t pass my “why do we care?” test. This might work if the weather or scenery is interacting with the protagonist, or in conflict with the protagonist.

A first sentence can establish conflict. I’ll give the first sentence of my upcoming book, The Moonlight Mistress, as an example. “There were no trains to Strasbourg.” This sentence begins with the dull and passive “There were,” which ought not to work. However, I think it does work, because this sentence is not static; it implies conflict. There aren’t any trains. Someone clearly wants a train. Why does she need a train? And why are there no trains? It’s a short sentence, and it’s easy to get to the next one. The reader will likely go on to find out what’s up with the trains. (I might be deluding myself, but isn’t that half of getting yourself to write?)

Ultimately, in a first sentence I want to see the protagonist and a problem as soon as possible. “When a boy’s first romantic interlude is with Phoebe the Dog-Faced Girl, he feels a need to get out into the world and find a new life.” [Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! by Annette Curtis Klause] Doesn’t that make you want to find out more?

I’ll end with this:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax.”

Related post:

The Art of Letting Go: Finishing the Novel.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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8 Responses to Novel Beginnings: on opening sentences

  1. Ms Menozzi says:

    Beautiful points! I had a critique that showed that reader really got what I was trying to achieve with “Connections”. At first glance, the opening sentences seem static, but much, much more is there, if you’re open to it.

    I love that you close with Calvino. That was an awesome novel. I started it, got a few chapters in and thought “I don’t get it.” I re-started it a few weeks later, and the brilliance was positively blinding!

    Great post!

    Ciao!

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    Thanks!

    I worried a bit about my opening sentence, but nothing else seemed right, so I left it. Then I figured out why I liked it. *is a backwards writer*

  3. Daz says:

    The first line in a book I read recently was:

    “By tomorrow morning, she would no longer be a virgin.”

    It was intriguing, at least for me.

  4. Aislinn Kerry says:

    I definitely agree with you that first sentences don’t need to start with a bang to grab the reader! One of my favorite openings has stuck with me for over a decade, though I’ve only read the book twice, and there are certainly no explosions in sight.

    I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.
    The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

    Considering I was in high school at the time, and walked to and from school every day with my nose buried in a book (and had my fair share of run-ins with tree trunks and lightposts XD ), how could I NOT be hooked??

  5. Victoria Janssen says:

    Daz & Aislinn, those are great! Thanks!

  6. Kelly says:

    Great post! Also, you don’t want a first line that starts off with a bang, but then the 2nd and 3rd sentences feel like they’re from a different book, y’know?

  7. Heather Howard says:

    See, "There were no trains to Strasbourg" does open with a bang for me. :D I am quite interested in why there aren't trains already. The "start with a bang" theory sometimes just doesn't hold up depending on the type of book you're about to read.

  8. Victoria Janssen says:

    I could be mean and NEVER TELL why there are no trains.

    Nah, just kidding. You do find out.

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