If you want to mesmerize yourself into the state of self-hypnosis required to write fiction, if you want to go further and mesmerize your audience, if you want to get published and to be read, then you will have to learn how to open strong.
I am not talking here about just a quotable first line, a flashy premise or an easy hook. We can’t all run around spouting clever generalities about happy families all being alike—I don’t think they are, actually—and getting things started with an explosion or a dead body is not necessarily the best way to a reader’s heart. (It may depend on what follows, of course.)
For me, a novel opening isn’t just about demonstrating a hyper-facility with words. It shouldn’t be about tricking the reader, either, by startling him with maximum action or unearned emotion. I’ve written and tossed away openings that grabbed readers but did not accurately foretell the style and themes of the book to follow. False advertising doesn’t work in the long run.
I’m more interested—and hope you are, too—in how first paragraphs and first pages set a pattern, plant seeds, develop or subvert genre expectations, build a world, and establish essential aesthetic priorities which will vary from author to author and novel to novel. I’m interested in the contract between writer and reader, and how it is worded, and when it is finally signed: generally earlier than we dare to realize. I’m interested in novel openings that appeal easily and openings that dare to challenge and complicate, because that can be a part of the contract, too.
Here are three strong openings from recent, award-winning literary novels which also happened to be commercially successful. These first lines show variety and decisiveness, and they model how even a single sentence can set the stage for all that is to follow.
- The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran. (Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog.)
- THE PLAY—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. (Ian McEwan, Atonement.)
- Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. (Louise Erdrich, Round House.)
In the four-week class “Open Strong,” we’ll come at this issue from many angles and develop our own ideas through writing and revising works-in-progress. But in the little time we have here, let’s think about how the examples above make us sit up and take notice, in a way that not only readers but also agents and editors immediately recognize.
The first thing is voice. The bitter, ethnically conscious and grammatically distinct narrator in House of Sand and Fog speaks nothing like the breathlessly excited, detail-oriented narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or like the more measured yet still purposeful narrator of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. We don’t know time periods or what characters look like or what precisely is happening—yet—and we don’t need to. The voices alone promise specificity, nuance, and humanity. To voice we can add other basic decisions about POV and even tense.
The second thing is conflict. And not just random conflict that will blow itself out as quickly and pointlessly as a bad Hollywood car chase, but an essential peek into the novel’s story and themes. There is a sense of sufficient novelistic scope in these lines, even the syntactically simplest of the three.
The third thing we might call narrative confidence. In each case, the author is clear about where we should focus our attention. We are not being overloaded, confused, or dazzled. We are being given just enough information and invited to participate in the significant moment that is unfolding. If we trust these authors, we will wager that every word matters and that there is significance beyond the surface details. Our cognitive facilities are on alert, ready for clues about how to interpret what follows.
By the way, titles of novels are sometimes delightfully ambiguous, but in this case, the titles are surprisingly clear, working alongside first sentences to tell us exactly what these novels are about.
House of Sand and Fog. A Persian man with a chip on his shoulder is determined to dish out everything he has been served. From the first sentence, we can guess that ethnic tensions, pride and desperation, will motivate his choices, bringing multiple characters into collision. (Title and spoiler in one: it’s about a house.)
Atonement. A girl, obsessed, will insist on the seeing the world as a play. We can imagine that her desire to control, direct, and even narrate her own particular vision of things will have terrible consequences. (Title and spoiler, example two: atonement will be pursued.)
Round House. Another person—a boy, as it turns out, though we can’t tell that yet—will tell us about the first moment when he noticed that his home (and his family) started crumbling. Symbolism will be called upon. Invaders will come in many forms. (Dare I mention the title gives us a hint where the main action will take place?)
To continue this conversation, please join me for the upcoming cl,” which will include reading, discussion, and workshopping of student’s first pages.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, published in 11 languages, as well as The Detour and a forthcoming novel, Behave. She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program. Her website is www.aromanolax.com.