What makes a spectacular literary opening gambit?

Thinking what to write - Your opening linesNow and again I come across a duff book. They can be sub-standard in all sorts of ways: badly written, boring, too slow to take off, a silly plot, characters that don’t ring true… If the first few pages don’t cut the mustard, grab me by the imagination and give it a good shake, I’m pretty unforgiving. But the first few lines are the biggest, shiniest, sharpest hook.

You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve left a book on a bus, train or park bench because I can’t bear to read another word, in the hope someone else will pick it up and enjoy it. Like reading in the bath, it’s one of the few things you can’t do with a Kindle edition!

Joel has given us a writer’s perspective. But what makes a novel’s first few lines irresistible from a reader’s perspective? I’ve been rummaging around on the amazing interweb and delving deep into my book collection for clues.

Attention, interest, desire, action…

If you’re in business you might recognise the AIDA principle, which says a successful piece of communication must grab the attention, pique interest, drive desire and make you want to take action. Does it apply to crime novels in particular, literature in general? At first glance, yes. I imagine things soon fall apart without all four motivators in place.

It’s as good a place to start as any. So how do some of my favourite writers manage to hit the big four and reel me in?

Great first pages from some of my best loved books

As it happens, I didn’t need to rummage far. If I enjoy a book enough to read it more than once it stays on the bookshelf. If not it goes straight to our local charity shop. What’s left is a collection of proper goodies. Here are the first lines of the first four books that came to hand:

The Red Room by Nikki French: “Beware of beautiful days. Bad things happen on beautiful days”

With My Little Eye by Francis King: “I spy! I lie on my side, right hand under check, and in the twilight I peer through the tunnel choked with trails of dead or dying vegetation. I shut one eye and attempt to focus the other. Then I reverse the process, shutting the other eye.”

The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur, a children’s book that I first read aged twelve: “It was my last day at home, my last day of childhood, my last day in Southern France.”

And Joel’s Final Judgement, starring one of my favourite crime thriller characters, Lou Mason: “There was a dead body in the trunk of Avery Fish’s Fleetwood Cadillac. Not that he didn’t have enough problems already.”

American Book Review’s 100 best first lines from novels

What about other people? A quick Google search returns the American Book Review site, featuring their 100 best first lines and including gems like this, at number four:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” , from Gabriel García Márquez’ fantastic 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

At number nine there’s a classic piece of Dickens magic from A Tale of two Cities, penned way back in 1859:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Got goose pimples yet? I have!

Then there’s this, at number 16, from J D Salinger’s enduringly popular exploration of teen angst, The Catcher in the Rye, as fresh today as it was in 1951 when it was published:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. “

What about you?

What’s your favourite opening line? Have you ever found yourself totally hooked on the very first page, completely unable to put a book down? And what do you think makes the best kind of opening gambit?

Image source: the Italian voice


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