Pondering Novel Openings…

I’m currently polishing my second book. This is the time to sit back and read, re-write passages, edit scenes out, firm up characters, check procedural research, and make sure it all hangs together. This is the time when I want to make sure it is tight, gripping, there are no lulls in the storyline, no gaps in the text.

The first few pages of a novel can mean the difference as to whether a reader is gripped and wants to read on, or leaves the book on the shelf and moves along. As an avid reader of crime fiction I’m always looking for action, excitement, character introduction, setting and intrigue.

I love books that grab me from the first line, keep up the tempo, leaving me wrung out at the end and wishing for me. I also like the gripping element of suspense.

With my work in progress, as with An Unfamiliar, I wrote a couple of intros, intending on picking the one that fits best. But when I started my review, none of them felt quite right. So, the other day, I had another go and wrote a scene that introduces characters, builds the tension, leads into a main event. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I read it back. Yay! I sat back and slapped my hands together. Job done. Until I realised, I was opening my book with dialogue…

I cast my mind back to other books I’ve read. Hmmm. None of them started with dialogue, not that I could recall anyway. I scoured my bookshelves: a few begin with quotes, but – guess what – no dialogue. I researched novel opening lines on the internet. There are a plethora of sites which show favourite openers, although they pretty much all agree on the same list of books. Check out 100 Best First Lines here.

Many of the novels on this list are picked from the classics. I love the set up intro of J D Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’ And the character introduction of George Elliot’s Middlemarch, ‘Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.’ The famous introduction of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice works magic for its story. But my book is a crime thriller, it opens with a tense scene, there is no room for touchy feely scene setting…

I researched crime novel openers. Peter Rozovsky wrote a great post on this on his blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, a few years back where readers put forward their favourite lines in the comments. This is more like it, I thought. Many of them gripped me, made me want to read on. My particular favourite from this list was Dick Francis’ Nerve: ‘Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.’

I did manage to find a few novels that open with dialogue, but it seems universally understood that opening with speech is a risky business. Obviously, a good novel is more than an opening line. But, as writers, we are constantly told that every word counts and since this is the introduction to our work, it needs to be something we are comfortable with. I’ve decided to send my openers to a couple of friends for their thoughts and see where that leads me. Maybe it’ll need another re-write. What do you think? I’d love to hear your views.

8 thoughts on “Pondering Novel Openings…

  1. You do need to go with what feels right for you and for this novel. I do write differently. I couldn’t obsess over the opening this way, until the entire book was down in some format or other. It all goes down, then I worry!

    I owe you an email. I will do it this weekend x

    • Hey Rebecca,
      Thanks for stopping by. I do have a first draft now, so this is my ‘tightening’ period. But I guess I am obsessing a little. I think it’s the perfectionist in me. Look forward to hearing from you:)

  2. My dear, Jane. I consider myself nutty, but far from being a nut; however, I really like to believe that these stories already exist, and we sinply catch them in the air and then right them down to be shared. It sounds hokey, I know. With that having been said, I say don’t listen to the so-called knowitalls. Write the story down “as you catch it” and let her go.


  3. Thanks for directing me to the comments, Jane… now, why didn’t I think to click on the word ‘replies’??? (Du-uh, as they say!)

    My thoughts on this are that you should write what is right for YOU. If you want to start it with dialogue, let it be so. Novels that are written to a formula always come over as such, I think. I haven’t read An Unfamiliar Murder, but I gather that it has been very well received – it seems you know what you’re doing!

    One of my novels, Nobody’s Fault, starts not only with dialogue, but with the F word in said speech. It is right for this first scene – a rebellious, headstrong teenager finding out that her father is leaving home. It’s got over 60 really good reviews, on both Amazon sites and Goodreads combined. My view is that if it works, you can break ‘the rules’ – I only ever read them with a cursory interest anyway, to be truthful!

    I could elaborate on this subject for ages, but I won’t – suffice to say that I’m sure Jack Kerouac, Douglas Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh and all my other favourite authors never worried about what they should or shouldn’t write – and I’m sure they didn’t worry which ‘genre’ they were writing in, either – I grow weary of being asked that, but that’s another subject!

    Interesting post, thanks. 🙂

    • Thank you Terry for your lovely comment & sound advice. It’s also good to hear that starting with dialogue worked for you. As new writers, sometimes we can get bogged down with formula, & what is perceived to be right and wrong. Thanks so much for your support:)

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