|Douglas Adams knew a thing or two about great openings
I thought for a while that Iain would need to come round and maybe administer drugs, in the way that the A-Team used to ambush Mr T to get him on a plane. Why? To make me stop tinkering with the opening paragraph of the first chapter.
I can’t help it. It’s so important that I’m never happy. It’s a compulsion that extends to other people’s work as well, I often find myself mentally butchering first paragraphs.
In the world before the internet, I think readers had more patience; you could assume they’d stick around for a page or two, while you gently drew them in.
In the world of endless pointing, clicking and moving-on it seems as though attention spans are much shorter.
We need to make sure that these things happen with the first paragraph:
· We draw the reader into the story, preferably with some enticing tidbit of intrigue that will make them hungry for more.
· We set the tone / voice of the novel.
· We might introduce some of our characters, and dip a toe into their world.
· We don’t do anything silly to scare them off!
I am serious with the last point about scaring them off. There are certain things that send enthusiasm plummeting.
· Complicated detail. If you find yourself explaining acronyms, stop right there.
· Too many unfamiliar names, places, ideas. If your world is very different to my world, I want to find that out as I follow your wonderful characters through your compelling story. I don’t want so much backstory or explanation that I will forget it by the end of page one.
A couple of examples of great openings:
Douglas Adams had the following to open “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
But as today marks the 200th anniversary of Dicken’s birth we should really finish with the classic opening from “A Tale of Two Cities”:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”