Thursday, October 14, 2010

17 Opening Sentences: Reeling Your Reader In

Marissa and I both read Brenna Yovanoff's brilliant novel, The Replacement, this week. Very unusually, for us, we didn't agree 100% on the opening. Marissa felt it was a little choppy, and I loved it from the get go. To be fair, part of my engagement with the opening might have been a reaction to the book I had just finished, which started off, for me, slowly and awkwardly. As soon as I opened The Replacement, I sat up straighter and thought, "Yes! This is more like it."

Now I am not the kind of person to put a book down. I will slog through almost anything. But the discussion I had with Marissa made me realize that I never LOVE a book unless I LOVE the opening. As you may or may not know, I keep a page here on the blog with openings I love. The past two days, I've been putting thought into what makes me love some openings more than others.

It comes down to a combination of urgency, voice, and sensory immersion.


I touched on urgency last week when I discussed the use of a ticking clock in fiction. The ticking clock is one method of providing urgency, but there are others.

Urgency, in a nutshell, is the breadcrumb trail an author lays down to keep your mind on the danger, mystery, or intrigue in a story. It's the series of questions strategically posed to keep us reading, the what, when, where, how -- and most of all, the WHY.

Think about it. We've all read books where the action is relentless and we frankly don't give a damn. The connection is missing. All we're getting is a laundry list of stuff: this happened and then this happened and then this happened. But laundry lists don't haunt us. Characters do. We want to know why they act, how they are going to react, what they will do next.


Ask any two experts to define voice, and they will provide a different answer. There's also a lot of confusion between voice and style. I may be in a minority, but I like to think of voice as something unique to the character or narrator of a work of fiction, and style as something unique to the author.

Voice is what gets us into the character's head.

Often it's the voice of the main character herself, but it can just as easily be the voice of the narrator. Either way, this is what gives us insight into the character's inner world. It's what shows us what the character feels and sees, and tells us WHY she thinks a certain way.

Sensory Immersion

J.A. Souders did a great post yesterday about a writing exercise to engage eleven senses instead of the more common five. Instead of thinking merely about sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, the exercise suggests writers engage time, temperature, pain, balance, motion, and direction in their passages, too. It's true that these are the senses that really ground us into a story and make us connect.

Using Voice, Urgency, and Sensory Immersion to Kick Start Your Story

A story can drop-kick you into action, but if you don't care about the character, you have no one to root for.  Taking a long time to build character, on the other hand, can leave us yawning. There's a delicate balance. And the more quickly the author establishes that balance, the better.

Take The Replacement, it opens like this:
I don't remember any of the true, important parts, but there's this dream I have. Everything is cold and branches scrape the window screen. Giant trees, rattling, clattering with leaves. White rain gutter, the curtain flapping. Pansies, violets, sunflowers. I know the fabric pattern by heart. They're a list in my head, like a poem.

I dream about fields, dark tunnels, but nothing is clear. I dream that a dark shape puts me in the crib, puts a hand over my mouth, and whispers in my ear. Shh, it says. And, Wait. No one is there, no one is touching me, and when the wind comes in around the edges of the window frame, my skin is cold. I wake up feeling lonely, like the world is big and freezing and scary. Like I will never have anyone touch me again.
There's a blank line after this, a brief separation to let us know that time has switched, and suddenly we are at a school that's having a blood-drive in the cafeteria. There's a blur of ordinary but slightly unusual teenage life, enough to let us know these are interesting teenagers, not interchangeable generic teens. And within a page and a half, Yovanoff gets to the heart of the story: "Would anybody really take something that fundamentally sucks over something good?"

We already know the narrator is the replacement child. We know he dreams about it, but we suspect from the amount of detail that the dream is really memory. We know Mackie worries that no one will love him. We know these things from the book's title and those two, brief paragraphs. And we wonder, will the replacement child have someone to touch him after all?

Within the next paragraph, we are introduced to someone that Mackie wants to touch:
I didn't answer. I was looking at Alice Harms, which was a habitual behavior, kind of like a hobby.
Like magic, we know Mackie doesn't have Alice but he wants her. And (kind of Twilightish, I admit) he is sickened by her blood. Because he isn't human. He's the replacement child, and the iron in her blood is lethal.
"People don't always know what they should want," he says as he watches Alice moving toward him.

Are you hooked? I am.

Now some of this is misleading. The novel is more complex, more rich, and more original even if many of the elements of life in a city made of iron and toxic metals are the same that Hollly Black also dealt with in her Tithe series. But the point is that Yovanoff has defined the problem in less than 500 words.  She's even engaged all the senses, introduced the school setting and four unique supporting characters, plus hinted at the musical undertones of the story. And it bears repeating--all in less than 500 words.

She breaks a number of "rules" to do this. She starts with those two prologueish paragraphs in present tense, then she switches to past tense. That can leave you a disoriented. It is a little jarring. She introduces a lot of characters quickly. Two too many, maybe.

Her opening isn't perfect. But it is brilliant, because I don't care if it's not perfect. I'm in, I'm reading, and I'm hooked.

The Faster the Better

Take a look at some of the other opening passages I've added to our Great Openings page over the past months.
I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.
I sit up and switch on the bedside light. There’s a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me. Then I lie back down and look out at the sky. It’s gone a funny colour – red and charcoal all at once, like the day is bleeding out.
Jenny Downham, Before I Die

The human-instinct for self-preservation is strong. I know, because mine pulls at me, too, like the needle on a compass. And everybody--I've been reading some philosophy--everybody seems to agree that the instinct and responsibility of all humans is to take care of themselves first. You have the right to survive. If you can.
Nancy Werlin, The Rules of Survival
The first time I heard my dead mother's voice, there was a logical explanation.
It was the middle of the night, naturally--that's when ghosts tend to visit. I woke from a familiar nightmare, gulping down air, my face damp with sweat, my heart hammering, visions of blue and green slipping away as I grabbed darkness gratefully instead.
Rune Michaels, The Reminder

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold. Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.
Scott Westerfeld, Uglies

There are so many, many more. Far more than I have in the Opening Passages page, but I'm working on adding on.

What do you think? What are your favorite openings? What do you look for? What is it that draws you in and keeps you feverishly turning pages?


  1. Definitely voice. In fact, like many above, openings I love open with telling that shows the character's personality. And show a hint of conflict. But I don't even need that in the first paragraph. If I like the voice and it feels real, I'll keep reading.

  2. That passage from BEFORE I DIE is absolutely haunting, I love it. I've never read the book but I sure want to now.

    One of my favorite openings of all time comes from one of my favorite books of all time, so I'm probably a bit biased. But the first lines promise the reader everything that unfolds in the book in terms of language and beauty. It's from THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle:

    "The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea."

    I think what all my favorite openings have in common is that they tell me exactly what I'm getting myself into. To me, the first lines are a promise about what the book will be--and if the author betrays that promise, no matter how good the rest of the book is, I'm always left wondering about that first taste. Because maybe that book, the one I thought it was going to be after the first few sentences, would have been even better.

    Another opening I love is the first section of LOLITA by Nabokov. The passage is too long to quote here, but the line that grabs me is--as the narrator is speaking about himself to the audience--"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." Who wouldn't keep reading?

  3. Meagan, isn't that an amazing piece of writing? Haunting is exactly the right word for it. And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE The Last Unicorn. From the first word, it is so full of images that burrow into your brain and take up residence.

    Laura, you're right. The voice has to feel authentic and unselfconscious. That's another important aspect to it.


  4. I think it's the images that get me. The strength of the writing, the uniqueness of character or voice or whatever the writer has opened with. That lively touch, where even a description of the character or internal monologue can be absolutely fascinating. Good writers can do that. And no, maybe the openings are not perfect, but they're still...just right.

  5. Wonderful as always. I particularly love the 11 senses. I'm going to use that. I read the Replacement too. And I LOVED it. I'm going to be interviewing the author on Enchanted Inkpot in November. I fell for the MC from the start, like you.

  6. Great post, Martina! Love how you've broken down all the components that go into an opening!!! I guess it's reading a question that intrigues me that keeps me going. TITHE's opening was one of my all-time favorites.

  7. Great post. Beginnings are so hard. You do have to reel in the reader with a good character and some compelling action to get the reader read more. The voice is what I struggle with most.

  8. I haven't read THE REPLACEMENTS yet, nor BEFORE I DIE. They both sound really good. This is all great stuff for us to remember in those first words. First 500 words? Wow.

  9. Great post. I agree, The beginning lines are so important to get right. Thanks for the tips though.

    Oh, and I love Before I die. It's an amazing book! Now I just have to read the others. :)

  10. I am all about voice. Whatever happens, the voice is going to be with us for the entire novel, so I want to enjoy spending time with it.

    As far as openings are concerned, I'm most often drawn in if the first sentence gives me something to wonder about.

  11. Wow. This is a fantastic post! I am bookmarking it right now so I can re-read it ten more times! LOL. :-)

  12. Carol, I'm with you. I adore visual writing and an opening with an overarching image. I don't mean it has to be meticulously described. Most of the good ones are suggestive rather than explicit. A great writer can do a lot with a few words.

    Lisa, figured you would like The Replacement. :D Can't wait for that interview! I really need to get over to The Enchanted Inkpot more often.

    Ara, I'm such a Holly Black fan it's embarassing. The line about the ocean's serene brutality and the image of Kaye spinning on the bleached planks of the boardwalk with her skirt swirling above the tops of her black thigh-high stockings.... Gorgeous. But what question drew you in there? That was an opening that got me just by virtue of author's talent. Holly Black is like Cassandra Clare in the way she can make details sing about the world she's created.

    Natalie, Julie, Shannon, Shoshanna and Lindsey, it's a lot easier to identify the components in someone else's work than to create it on our own, right? :D

    Thanks so much for commenting, everyone! *Hugs*

  13. For me it's voice and emotion. But something must happen, too.

    Love the J.A. exercise. I'm going to try that out once I've finished my first draft. :D

  14. great post! I love looking at openings. One of my favorites is "The Year the Swallows Came Early" because the author uses a great metaphor and tells us immediately what the story is going to be about. She also gives us a character with a compelling voice. I think we get the conflict, the tone, and the voice all in the first paragraph in that book. Or the first two paragraphs.

    I also really like "The Charlatan's Boy" right now, because I love the narrator's voice. I fell absolutely in love with him on the first page.

    Another masterful opening, I've always thought, is Shannon Hale's Princess Academy. The voice is right there and you immediately see the world. There is a goat dung fire. And it's as dark as eyes closed. Beautiful stuff.

    Fly By Night also has a great opening. Great voice, great world building, great conflict.

    Oh, sigh. I do so want to write a great opening myself. When I first started writing I used to read the first page of The Hobbit every so often and feel overwhelmed with self-pity at my lack of talent. :)

  15. [M~My commentary on the opening paragraph of TITHE by Holly Black in brackets]:

    Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother's beer bottle. [Question 1: What kind of girl smokes in close proximity to her mom? Question 2: Why would she do something so mean to her mom? Question 3: Are daughter and mother smoking and drinking, respectively, together?] She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was--see if she would swallow a butt whole. [Question 4: What kind of family situation do these two have, where the mom is regularly blitzed? Question 5: Could any good possibly come of this dysfunctional pairing, or are things about to go from bad to worse? Question 6: Does Kaye want her mom to stay sober or does she like the freedom having an inattentive parent gives her?]
    Good stuff! I love Holly Black, too, Martina! : )

  16. Ara, OMG I completely forgot about the prologue! Thanks for the reminder. And your questions are fascinating -- especially as we don't really get the payoff for some of the seeds until Ironside!

    Sally, thanks for sharing your favorites. I need to put some of those on our page--maybe all, but I haven't read The Charlatan's Boy yet. Definitely on my TBR list!


  17. I love this post. Makes me review the beginning of the childrens books I am writing.


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