Laura: Should one start a piece of writing with a question?
Last year, in my quest to write the best possible opening for Truth Or Dare?, I learned that the first line of a story should have its reader asking questions. I knew the first paragraph should hook them and reel them in, as it is a fundamental of writing, but actively writing a line that makes the reader ask questions was something I hadn’t considered. With this in mind, The Romaniacs, Laura, Jan, Debbie, Celia and Lucie, have chosen opening sections from some of our favourite books.
These are mine:
1984. George Orwell. ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
My Sister’s Keeper. Jodi Picoult. ‘When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.’
The Lovely Bones. Alice Sebold. ‘My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6 1973.’
I love these three books and they have stayed with me since I first read them. Do these first lines have me asking questions? Yes. ‘Thirteen?’ ‘Why?’ and ‘What’s happened?’ Of course, you could be asking entirely different questions. Are you?
Sue : Whenever I read the opening to The Lovely Bones, I always say it in the girl’s voice from the film – very powerful. I’ve not read the book but might give it a whirl.
Celia: Like Laura, I love unanswered questions and snaphots of characters that make me want to get inside their heads. I wanted include my favorite children’s books, but maybe that’s for another time – so here are my top three ‘grown-up’ opening lines.
Alexander McCall Smith – The Sunday Philosophy Club. Isobel Dalhousie saw the young man fall from the edge of the upper circle, from the gods. His flight was so sudden and short, and it was for less than a second that she saw him, hair tousled, upside down, his shirt and jacket up around his chest so that his midriff was exposed. And then, striking the edge of the grand circle, he disappeared headfirst towards the stalls below.
John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos. One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September. But for that, we should both of us undoubtedly have been at home in Midwich on the night of the 26th-27th, with consequences which, I have never ceased to be thankful, she was spared.
Alan Plater – The Beiderbeck Affair. The school had been built during the 1960s and named after a councillor who had performed great service for the area. The voters, astute critics all, re-named it San Quentin High within a week of the official opening by a smooth man from Whitehall with a sharp suit and a forward-facing haircut. He seemed under the impression that he was in either Bradford or Wakefield and such transgressions are not forgiven in the outer limits of Leeds. The consensus opinion afterwards was unanimous: the fellow was a hundred-carat prick, certain to go far. He did.
Laura: I remember watching The Beiderbeck Affair a few years ago. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn were the main actors. The opening of The Sunday Philosphy Club has intrigued me, Celia. I will be taking a look at that one.
Lucie: Opening lines are very important, as the others have agreed. The amount of times I have re-written the opening few lines of my first book and it probably still isn’t quite right. I like snappy, sarcastic and witty first lines. I like these types of books, too. I also like the opening lines to make me ask questions. I want to be dragged into the story, with no control over whether I should stop and read anything else. I want to not be able to put it down.
The following openings are just a couple of my most recent favourite.
Jane Lovering – Please don’t stop the music: ‘You know you’re in for a bad day when the Devil eats your last HobNob.’ (I love how this catches your attention straight away. You tend to re-read it – ‘did she just say, the devil??’)
Marian Keyes – Watermelon: ‘February the fifteenth is a very special day for me. It is the day I gave birth to my first child. It is also the day my husband left me. As he was present at the birth I can only assume the two events weren’t entirely unrelated.’ (Straight away you get the authors voice through here. You get what the tone of the book is going to be.)
Stephenie Meyer – Twilight: I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. (This makes the reader ask questions from the offset. Why has this person died? How did it happen then, if it’s not how they imagined? What did they imagine would happen?)
Spooky that I considered Lucie’s suggestion of Watermelon by Marian Keyes as one of my choices. It was a great opening and a novel that didn’t disappoint. After much deliberation, I’ve chosen a diverse range of my best opening lines but one thing they all have in common is the opening raises a question in my mind. I have to read on, which, after all is the whole point.
Number one (and no surprises as it’s in my top five novels of all time) is ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
And very like Sue’s comment about the ‘Lovely Bones’ and how the girl’s voice stays in her head, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd has the same effect for me (both the book and film) and is my second choice…
“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”
My final choice nearly included the opening of Precious Bane by Mary Webb. However, seeing as I struggled to read further than the first few pages I thought I’d better stick with a book I’d actually finished!
So instead, here’s the opening of ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things’ by Jon McGregor.
“If you listen, you can hear it.
The city it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of the garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt when it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note…”
This is a real ‘Marmite’ book; you either love it or hate it. For me, it was an intriguing opening that hooked instantly and continued to grip me with its vivid descriptions and gripping pace to the end.
The first opening line I’ve picked doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures but it reeled me in as I instantly wanted to know “Why?” The novel itself affected me, emotionally, for days.
Maggie O’Farrell – After You’d Gone: ‘The day she would try to kill herself, she realised winter was coming again.’
My second choice simply made me think, “Ah, bless…” and want to root for the character from the outset.
David Nicholls – Starter for Ten: ‘All young people worry about things, it’s a natural and inevitable part of growing up, and at the age of sixteen my greatest anxiety in life was that I’d never again achieve anything as good, or pure, or noble, or true, as my O-level results.’
My third choice hooked me because this character got straight to the point, no messin’.
Susan Howatch – Penmarric : ‘I was ten years old when I first saw the Inheritance and twenty years old when I first saw Janna Roslyn, but my reaction to both was identical. I wanted them.