The FIRST lines are the greeting of a book to the reader and, therefore, a vital element in the whole. If you hit the wrong grade, a weak opening can nullify a great cover or attractive banner ad. On the other hand, a good opening hook captures the reader from the beginning. However, does it indicate a sales success? Consider some of these.
One of my favorite openings is from ‘1984’ by George Orwell, and it goes like this: “It was a cold, bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Or how about Dodie Smith’s opening for ‘Capture The Castl’ that begins … “I write this sitting at the kitchen sink.”
Why the hell is she in the kitchen sink? One cannot help but keep reading.
The same, albeit more dramatic, applies to the intro to John Ivor’s ‘Run Maggie Run’, which has been compared to a Dickens tale: “A finger of sunshine peeked through the dirt from the living room windows of hearings, he polished the varnished panels of the dock and created a halo for the prisoner, who was known as Maggie, aged nine. The charge was murder. “
A later novel, ‘No Kiss For A Killer’, allows John Ivor to flow fast action from the front line: “There was a time, a desperate time, when I cursed the soft mists of my native Oxfordshire and lamented its picturesque valleys and folds. … Among the fruitful browns and greens, a deceptive dip will hide the approach of the riders. “
Dickens himself is not noted for his openings, which are often wordy and smooth. His first published fiction, ‘The Pickwick Papers’, begins like this: “The first ray of light that illuminates the gloom, and turns into a dazzling glow that darkness in which the earlier story of the immortal Pickwick’s public career would seem to engage, is derives from reading the following entry in the Pickwick Club Transactions, which the publisher of these articles takes the greatest pleasure in exposing to his readers, as proof of careful attention, unremitting assiduity, and agreeable discrimination, thereby he has carried out his search among the many documents entrusted to him. “
All one can say to that verbosity is Ay!
However, the beginning of a later Dickens novel is often quoted: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Thus begins ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which is a history of the French Revolution.
Another old man, less intense than the guillotine days but more intriguing at first, is still very popular: “Here’s Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, hit, hit, hit, on the back of the head, behind Christopher Robin … “
You guessed it? ‘Winnie the Pooh’ by AA Milne.
Charles Bryce uses the same technique to enchant children when introducing ‘Mousedeer’, the first lines are … “Deep in the woods comes a breeze. Hush! Hear him whisper …”
For browsers, whether in a bookstore or online, the first few lines become very important when deciding whether to buy an unknown author. These lines don’t necessarily have to be exciting or puzzling. The only need is to arouse the interest of the reader.
Here’s one that I especially like. He introduced me to Nury Vittachi’s ‘Feng Shui Detective Case Book’: “The tiger walking through the supermarket had blue eyes.”
If that doesn’t get you, nothing will. Now let’s take a look at some recent bestsellers.
Stieg Larsson, late author of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and other best sellers, doesn’t bother to make a clever hook. It just gets right into the action, like a movie. His narrative comes close to being heavy, often boring, and yet he keeps moving.
While a good opening will influence a sale, it never guarantees a sales success. There is no way to prejudge mass appeal. The phenomenal Stephenie Meyer started her ‘Twilight’ series with a bland girls school scene. Here there are no hints of vampires and terrifying facts, nor world fame for the author.
Dan Brown begins ‘Inferno’ with a gripping mystery with these words: “I am the Shadow. Through the aching city, I flee. Through the eternal wave, I fly.”
His previous bestseller, ‘The Lost Symbol’, also captivated from the start, as follows: “The secret is how to die.” This thriller degenerates thereafter, but still rose to best-seller status. It has the most valuable ingredient of all: a brand author.
Hilary Mantel’s first big hit, ‘Wolf Hall’, opens with a spoken taunt: “So now get up. Knocked down, stunned, silent, he’s fallen; struck on the cobblestones in the courtyard.”
This is continuous action, in the middle of a fight, and encourages reading.
Bryce McBryce gives the opening lines his own charming touch. The fun and nostalgic ‘BRAT’ begins like this: “Smaller than a briefcase and only four years old, the youngest in that army, Charlie watched the soldiers climb aboard: pith helmets, khaki shorts, puttees, boots , bolt-action rifles “.
The above book is presented as linked short stories as a child grows from four to nine reflecting on the oddities of adults. All McBryce chapter openings are good, but one that demands instant attention begins ‘The Spirit of Waterloo’: “Alphonse was chasing the garrison school because he was there. He was heavily there, in his grave.”
Bright entries will always have their place in literature, but do they really matter for a book’s final fate? This is a question that I challenge readers to answer, because there is no analysis that can enlighten us with certainty. Aside from brand authors who sell millions for reputation alone, how book readers will respond to a particular title remains a mystery.