How to write good opening sentences in novels

Here we’re peeking at a few genuine opening sentences from the novels of aspiring writers. Before we plunge into our sentence surgery, two quick comments.

First, opening sentences don’t matter all that much. The opening paragraph of the novel I’ve just handed to my publisher ran, in its entirety, as follows:

Rain.

Was that a good opening sentence for a book? Well, no one asked me to change it, but does that sentence hook a reader in? And hook them into a novel set in Wales, where the presence of rain hardly merits much discussion? I don’t think so.

The fact is that the process of hooking a reader usually takes longer than a sentence and writers shouldn’t obsess unduly about the stuff above and to the left of the manuscript’s first full stop. There’ll be plenty more full stops to come.

Second, I’m horrible. I mean, yes, I’m nice to widows, orphans and stray dogs, but I’m horrible to slightly iffy sentences. I’m very picky and my standards are high. So if some of my could-do-better commentary below depresses you – well, forget it. It’s not you. It’s me.

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So much for the preamble. Now for the sentences. (No authors are named because very few of the sentences I had had named authors on the page.)

There were just three things that Samine was certain of in her life; first she was dangerous; second, she was never allowed to leave her room and, third, the spirit of a dragon lived inside her.

Not bad, though it’s a little too close to Stephenie Meyer’s now famed three-part quote from Bella Swan in Twilight. Still, you can see what the author is wanting to do and the idea itself is fine. Here’s one way of tweaking things without altering anything too much (though it brings it still closer to Stephenie Meyer’s phrasing):

There were just three things that Samine knew for certain. First she was dangerous. Second, she was never allowed to leave her room. Third, a dragon lived inside her.

That’s shorter, clearer. It’s also better weighted. The key word in the first part of the writer’s sentence is “certain”. The addition of “in her life” doesn’t add much meaning but it does de-emphasise “certain”. My formulation is that bit clearer about where the interest of the sentence lies.

One other thing, I’m not sure if this is the place to reveal that Samine can’t leave her room. The middle of one of the three certainties doesn’t tie obviously to the other two and feels a bit different. (#1 and #3 feel like existential statements; #2 feels like a simple, known fact.) But if the middle of those three statements goes, then the whole opening needs reconsideration.

The most ironic thing about your first impression of me – I looked like butter wouldn’t melt.

Interesting. I almost like this. My only real worry is that “the most ironic thing” bit. It feels a bit like a teenage use of ironic, which is perhaps not correct given the context, but in any case, I do wonder if there aren’t simpler, less laboured ways of doing the same thing. Suppose, for example, we just said, “Your first impression of me: I looked like butter wouldn’t melt.” That is surely strongly suggesting that that first impression might be way off base, yet it conveys that impression by making the reader do most of the work. As a rough guide, the more the reader feels they’ve made a deduction, the more powerful that conclusion will feel.

He’s stalking behind the disused factory, waiting for the flapping of wings to alert him to where you are.

You remember when I said I’m pedantic?

To stalk is a transitive verb, that is, it requires an object. I stalk you, etc., I don’t just stalk in the abstract. So that first clause feels a bit uncomfortable. And “alert him to where you are” also feels a little bit strained. Wouldn’t “alert him to your position” read better? And the double participle (waiting for the flapping) seems a bit needless here. But you only need a little tweaking and this is a strong, engaging opening:

He’s searching you out behind the disused factory, waiting for a sudden flap of wings to reveal your position.

That’s better.

The house had something American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share.

Nothing to say, except that me personally I’d probably sooner say “had something of the American Gothic …”. But it’s a great, subtle opening.

What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband?

Again, that’s great.

My mother’s shroud was a grubby net curtain and her coffin was a gun case.

I’m almost with you and this is good stuff. I don’t like the word “grubby”, though: it pulls attention away from “net curtain” and the use of a net curtain for a shroud is quite striking enough irrespective of whether it’s grubby. Just delete the adjective. Also, I hope you’re about to tell us how come the gun case was big enough to fit your mother. I mean, that’s a very large case, or a remarkably small mother. So long as you explain that niggle sometime soon, that’s fine, and it’s a good opening line.

It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’, and the more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed, ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’

Thing is, the best bit of this sentence is the very opening and the longer it goes on the more you overwrite that clean and striking opening. Some full stops would help:

It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’. The more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed. ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’

That’s already a lot better. I’d still want to tinker with that middle sentence, but we’ve already got something more than half-decent here.

Deano’s hair was still wet from the pool and he swept his palm over his scalp trying to chase off the cold. ‘Come on, cock-snot. Pick up. Please.’

Okay, I very much like the dialogue. I like the contrast with the more formal opening sentence. The writing itself is fine. Just … I don’t quite believe the gesture you’re telling us about. When people get out of the pool their hair is normally already very flat and smoothed from the water. You definitely can’t chase cold away by palming your already flat hair and it’s not even a gesture most of us feel tempted to make. If he’s cold, he grabs a towel, or moves into the sun, or does something other than what you tell us he’s done.

Picky? Yes. But getting those kinds of details utterly convincing from the off is part of what gets a reader into the story. Here, you do get the reader in, but you’ve done so with a tiny – and needless – stutter upfront.

The hands on the clock didn’t seem to move, unlike mine as I drummed and fidgeted on the table.

Hmm, this is okay, but it’s not quite good. The hands-not-moving-on-the-clock isn’t a cliche exactly, but it is a very familiar idea. Likewise fidgeting hands: also a very standard way of conveying impatience. Further into a novel, those kind of issues dissolve a little bit. Sometimes it’s just quicker and cleaner to reach for the familiar, so the novel can hurry onto wherever it’s heading. But in an opening sentence, I think any whiff of cliche threatens a reader’s trust, and you need to extirpate it completely. As I say, there isn’t an out-and-out cliche here, but I do think you’re cycling a little too close to the edge.

The cat barked.

Everyone will want to read on to see what follows. Purrfect.

The fucking train is cancelled. Again.

Yep, good – cancelled trains as a sign of commuter distress is well-used, though, so I hope you have an interesting way to use the incident. I would be disappointed in an opening page that just rehearsed the various woes of the commuter – but we’re on sentences here, not pages, and that sentence is fine.

And finally:

I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door, I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch, he stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic he weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair.

Here’s one of those ‘sentences’ which is begging to be carved up. A few full stops instantly make this a mile better:

I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door. I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch. He stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic. He weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair.

That’s a relief already, only a few remaining niggles really.

Using Munroe’s full name doesn’t seem right, since the narrator clearly knows the guy, and we don’t think of people as know as Title Firstname Lastname. Yes, you may want to give us Munroe’s full name in due course, but you don’t have to do it here. Secondly, that last sentence still has three ‘and’s in it. That feels awkward, especially so early in the book. Third, how does the narrator know what Munroe weighs? I mean, the sheriff is clearly a fellow who likes his meat and potatoes, but that’s different from knowing someone’s measured weight. I’m not convinced. Finally, a minor thing, I have a hesitation about ‘I opened it’: it’s just that you’re narrating every tiny incident, even those we take for granted. Better to take a slightly less blow-by-blow approach.

Something like this, maybe:

It was early, when Sheriff Munroe came calling. He stood at my door, a little over five feet six, and looking almost cubic. He must weigh somewhere close to two hundred and fifty pounds, and he has the arms of a bear: thick, powerful and profusely hairy.

I know that last sentence still has three ands, but the restructuring helps the rhythm, at least to my ear.

There, we’re all done. If I must pick a winner, I’ll go for:

What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband?

Or:

The house had something [of the] American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share.

Well done, everyone. And remember: it doesn’t really matter. The opening sentences for my five Fiona Griffiths novels are:

#1: Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park.

#2: It’s a Friday afternoon.

#3: I like the police force.

#4 (forthcoming): Rain.

#5 (WIP): ‘Well?’

None of those are good opening sentences (though not terrible). And, in most cases, it doesn’t take long to get something that puts a scrap of meat on the reader’s dish. The opening paragraph to my second Fi Griffiths novel, for example, goes like this:

It’s a Friday afternoon. October, but you wouldn’t think so. High clouds scudding in from the west and plenty of sunshine. The last shreds of summer and never mind the falling leaves.

That last sentence already advertises a certain strength and confidence, and that’s fine!

An opening paragraph can do more if it wants to, but it really doesn’t have to. Notice that this opening para sets up nothing interesting about the character, the situation, or, indeed, even the weather. It just sets a scene and does so with confidence.

If your manuscript does that then, no matter how unshowy that opening sentence, you’re doing just fine.

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