Look at the opening lines from specific novels below. What question does each line generate in your mind?
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. [from 1984, science fiction]
- My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. [from Fingersmith, historical fiction]
- All children, except one, grow up. [from Peter Pan, YA fiction]
- They threw me off the hay truck about noon. [from The Postman Always Rings Twice, neo-noir thriller]
- The corpse opened its eyes. [from Necromancer’s Gambit, dark fantasy]
- How can clocks strike thirteen? What world are we in?
- What’s her name now? Why did she change her name?
- Really? Which one? How is such a wonderful thing possible? What’s the secret?
- Why did they throw you off? What did you do? Or was there something about you they didn’t like?
- How can a corpse open its eyes? Whose corpse is it, by the way? Do they feel anything? How did they die? Who killed them? Do they want revenge?
What all the opening lines have in common is that they provide a ‘narrative hook’, a piece of incomplete information that triggers questions in the reader’s mind. Once the reader is ‘hooked’ they’ll keep reading… so the writer should resist giving the answers to the questions for a good while. The writer needs to resist explanation and exposition.
TV shows and films often use narrative hooks too. Think about the CSI show. Even before the title sequence starts, we are shown the bizarre crime scene, and we start wondering how the person died and who might have been responsible for the death. Think about Lost. It’s just one hook after another, with no answers ever given.
Even Shakespeare knew to provide a narrative hook in the opening line of his plays: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’! And if narrative hooks are good enough for Shakespeare, then…
Write the opening line for each of the following plots/scenarios…
- a crime novel that starts in an underground public toilet. Our detective suffers from OCD.
- a horror set in a world where the ground is now barren. Nothing grows anymore. The only sustenance left is meat…
- a science fiction novel set on an intergenerational star ship, five generations into its mission.
- a fantasy novel in which a blacksmith has been forced to turn mercenary.
If you’d like me to look at how successful your opening lines are, please do feel free to email me (Adam): adz_d2003 @ yahoo.co.uk – deleting the two spaces either side of the @ sign.
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