A bad opening line can kill a reader’s interest. But done well, the opening sentence of a novel can do a few things – it can give us a flavour of the story, introduce an important place or person, intrigue or shock us. There’s no formula, but let me give some of the best examples of each of the devices I’ve mentioned: flavour, introduction, intrigue, and shock.
The flavour is what the novel’s world feels like to us. As a reader we’re going to spend a lot of time in its world, so the atmosphere is important. Read one of the Inspector Montalbano books, like August Heat, and feel the Sicilian sun on your face; read Rebecca and sense the gothic beauty and chill of Manderlay; read Perfume and get a sickening whiff of eighteenth-century France before sanitation. The opening line of Casino Royale evokes a world brilliantly: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ In sixteen words we have entered another world. The opening line gives us a flavour, the rest of the book provides a whole taste.
Introducing a place or a character sounds like an obvious thing to do at the beginning of a novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do well. Here’s Graham Greene’s opening for Brighton Rock: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ It’s brilliantly simple. We’re introduced to the character Hale, the city of Brighton, a murderous group, whoever ‘they’ are, and the situation itself. It gets to the point, with no words wasted. It grabs our attention and gives us a lot of information, but without lacking intrigue.
And for intrigue we can turn to the first page of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ If that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is. It fills your mind with questions. Why do the clocks strike thirteen? What kind of a world are we in? It’s surreal, disconcerting, and sets the tone for the nightmare that follows. I won’t say here why the clocks are striking thirteen. Needless to say, something sinister is happening.
And now for a shock. I once read a popular thriller which opens with someone dying from poisoning. It was a gruesome opening, but it was also very boring. Presumably the author thought he could shock the reader and grab their attention with sensationalism and blood. It didn’t work. Shock should have an element of surprise. Here’s the opening to A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Cloverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It’s a shocking and bizarre motive for a crime. It makes us ask ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ It’s such an unlikely opening to a novel, we want to know more. Also there’s the added shock that at the beginning of a crime novel, we’re told exactly who the murderer is.
These are just some of my personal favourites. The opening line should be carefully crafted with the aim of making us read on. When it’s successful, we cannot resist. If you’re a writer, choose your opening words carefully. They’re probably the most important words you’ll write.