Friday, 10 February 2012

Arresting Your Reader…


A couple of years ago, I attended a writing masterclass hosted by the fabulous Diane Pearson, acclaimed author and recently retired President of the Romantic Novelist’s Association. Diane was also Senior Editor for Transworld Publishers where she edited - among many illustrious others - the wonderful Jilly Cooper and, in 1994, she won the British Book Award for Editor of the Year.

The subject of the workshop was getting the opening lines of your novel exactly right in order to immediately arrest the attention of your reader. I learned so much from Diane on that day about opening lines that I now work hard to make sure the start of my novels adhere to her wise words.

I learned that ideally the first lines should indicate the mood, tone and content of the book, as well as setting the time and place. Controversially perhaps, it was suggested that dialogue should be avoided in the first paragraph, as it makes it difficult to capture period and place quickly. To see how this is done effectively, I suggest we look at the one of the most powerful, most recognised opening lines in all of literature, that of Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.”
 
Using Diane’s advice, I tried to use this principle of mood, tone, content and sense of place with the opening lines of my own novel ‘Bagpipes & Bullshot’. To my delight, she read out my work in class that day as an approved example!

“When the Greyhound bus pulled over in Baytown Texas, Innes Buchanan stepped off. He dropped his tartan backpack and bagpipes onto the boardwalk and inhaled deeply, feasting his eyes on the shimmering white sands and glittering blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”

So writers, let’s get to work on our own opening lines – please do feel free to let me know how you are getting along by leaving a comment.

And readers, what are you reading right now? Why not flip back to the opening few lines of the novel you are reading and let us know if you get a sense of mood, tone, content and sense of place from those first few sentences?

Love, Janice xx

18 comments:

MSBjaneB said...

I do love the opening of Rebecca. That book is forever haunting.

Sheryl said...

Yes, I love Rebecca, too *sighs*. I confess I'm not reading this yet. I have a book on the go. The book I'm quoting from arrived yesterday and I KNOW I'm going to enjoy reading from browsing the opening page, as I tend to. Here we go: 'Dying was, quite frankly, incredibly easy.' How simple and engaging is that? Drew me right in. Can't wait to get into, 'Touched by the Light' by Linn B Halton. :) x

Janice Horton said...

Hi Jane - thanks so much for your comment. I so agree and think 'Rebecca' shares the ethereal quality of 'Wuthering Heights' - so very haunting!

Sheryl - Oh wow - what a great opening line! Thanks for quoting from 'Touched by the Light'!

Linn B Halton said...

I nearly fell off my chair when I clicked through and saw the lovely Sheryl quoting 'Touched by the Light' on the same page as 'Rebecca'... Be still my heart! I'm honoured, and yes I totally agree with the importance of that opening line. In fact, sometimes I ONLY have the opening line when I begin writing. I'm not sure I should actually admit that (laugh)! But seriously, for me it's the first chapter that is so important. Janice has managed it so that it looks easy, natural and Sheryl's opening lines imply a fast-pace, it's action with her characters! Now I'm going away to check the first line of my next one... I hope it had impact!

Old Kitty said...

Your opening lines are just lovely - it does set the mood and place and character immediately! There's no doubting Mr Buchanan is Scottish to the core but in Texas! I like that!

Take care
x

kitdomino said...

Opening lines are so important. Love all yours, Janice. And Linn's was excellent, too. My favourite from a childhood book is "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." from Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis.
Ooo-eck, I'd better go check my own openings now.

Miriam Wakerly said...

I agonised for a long time over the opening lines for my first novel Gypsies Stop tHere and I did opt for dialogue. “People threatened with eviction, due to no fault of their own, being unjustly hounded out. It’s mediaeval the way they’re treated, don’t you think?” Then the reader soon finds out who says this and why. I went through so many possibilities before I opted for this. Arresting? I hope so! Love Rebecca by the way ... What about Emma Donoghue's 'Room': 'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe ...' I have your 'Touched by the Light' on my tbr list as am so intrigued.

Miriam Wakerly said...

sorry I meant Linn's 'Touched by the Light' not 'yours', Janice . You knew that! :-)

CarolynB said...

Great post - thanks for sharing these important points. Love the opening lines about bagpipes arriving in Texas! Terrific :)

I've just read the UK classic (?) 'I Capture the Castle' and really enjoyed it. Opening line = 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.'

Cheers.

nickywellsklippert said...

Fabulous post, Janice. I love the array of opening lines that you suggest and the other ones that have been brought forward now and (gulp) will have to go revisit my own... Thanks so much for this very stimulating and topical piece, I love it. XX

nickywellsklippert said...

Fabulous post, Janice. I love the array of opening lines that you suggest and the other ones that have been brought forward now and (gulp) will have to go revisit my own... Thanks so much for this very stimulating and topical piece, I love it. XX

Chris Longmuir said...

Great post, Janice. After I read it I went off to look at my opening lines. So here goes - From Night Watcher - 'Mist shrouded everything except for the Discovery's skeletal masts pointing long bony fingers into the sky. It was an omen. He had come to the right place.'
And from Dead Wood - 'Last night when the dark was at its blackest, something had nipped at her fingers. She'd wiggled them and it had moved away, slithering into the unknown, no doubt waiting for another opportunity.'

Patricia Sands said...

Great post. Linn, Janice and Chris, your opening lines all grabbed me. Now to read the books!

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Yes, opening lines are so very important. I agonise over mine for days and return often whilst writing the rest of the book! A brill post!

Melanie said...

Love the opening lines samples. And due to their importance, they are extremely difficult to come up with.

I can only hope my opening lines in my novel (due out in May/June sorry can't resist the chance to toot my own horn) captivate the reader the way the ones you folks have mentioned.

Looking forward to reading your next novel, Janice.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great post, Janice - I love Rebecca's opening line, and yours sets the scene very well.

Joan Fleming said...

Such an interesting topic, Janice. Rebecca's opening lines are so memorable. Yours deserve to be used as an example of best practice.

Vikki said...

Love all the opening lines mentioned on here. And it's good to be reminded of the importance of drawing a reader in right from the start