What I think about novel openings
I don’t like the opening to “The Great Gatsby” although is it stuck in my memory – “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since…”
Not exactly a grabber. But the beginning establishes our narrator as kind of dull but reliable.
That’s not the start I want.
There were some novel openings I used to like: someone wakes up – buried alive; or a baby is left on the doorstep; or a stranger appears and clearly has a past…
But after a while I began to think: I don’t care about the parentage of the child, I don’t care who the stranger is (well, it’ll be the illegitimate brother come to swing in for the inheritance, won’t it?)
I think I like something to be happening. Someone bungee jumps or leaps out of a helicopter. Maybe they hit someone or steal a car. Maybe they run naked through a shopping centre or set fire to a house.
Here are my top tips for novel openings:
- There should be action, with internal monologue from our protagonist in the immediacy of the action.
- There should be an implicit creed/worldview/theory that the protagonist lives by that the reader should be drawn to subconsciously question: “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” / “2=2=4. If that is granted, all else follows” / “reserve judgement”
- There should be pressure of time on our character – with a future hinted at or stated.
- There should be things we don’t know, that we feel we should know.
- The reader must be lead to sympathise with the protagonist.
Okay, let me try these out:
I stood in the queue in the ice-cream shop, fingering the knife in my bag. I couldn’t wait any longer. It would have to be now.
With a sudden lunge I leaned across the counter and flashed the blade in her face. “Give me the Kola Cubes! All of them!” I hissed.
Sharon’s eyes nearly popped out of her head, and rolled away like a pair of oversized everlasting gobstoppers. Her mouth hung open. I felt like ramming a coil of liquorice right in. The other customers all slinked out – not that I cared. This shouldn’t take long.
“Now!” I yelped, “Kola Cubes! Right now! I haven’t got time for this” I pushed the knife further, until she went slightly cross-eyed.
She gulped. Phew! Finally she understood that I was serious. She kept her eyes on the point of the knife and flung her arms out blindly behind herself.
“Ocht! This is hopeless!” I cried, despairing. I jumped up and put my backside on the counter and spun round, flipping my legs down onto her side. “I’ll get them myself.”
“Bu…bu…bu… what are you doing, Julie?” she finally said.
“Shaz, Shaz, Shaz – don’t worry about what I am doing – just be glad you still have a nose.” I grabbed the huge jar of sweets and vaulted over the counter again. I made for the back door, through the little kitchen are and out into the alleyway.
Okay, so I needn’t have used the knife – but I thought that it might speed things on a bit. I mean, what would have happened if a gaggle of schoolgirls had come in and ordered just one too many Kola Cubes? I couldn’t risk them discovering what was hidden in the sweets.
Not that they would have known what to do with it.
I broke into a jog – not too slow, not too fast and rattled my way like a guilty maraca out of the alley and into the side-street and into my car.
I slammed the door and felt a rush of excitement. I had solved the first part of the puzzle and secured my target.
I stretched out my palm and unscrewed the lid. I scrabbled in the Kola Cubes to find what I was looking for. They were like sandpaper, so I tipped them out into a sugary pile on the passenger seat. And there it was – the key was mine!
It was stubby, and a promising golden colour. I held it up to the light.
In my peripheral vision I caught sight of a police car. Surely not! Would Sharon have called the cops? On me? For goodness’ sake. It must have been one of those randomers in the shop. Ooft. You can’t account for people who stick their noses in where they’re not wanted, though, can you. You can take all the precautions you want, make all the plans you like – but sometimes, some random person will pitch up and pull the rug out from under you and all your mint humbugs, bon-bons, or even Kola Cubes will go everywhere.
I simply had to find out what the key was for. This was the next clue – and if I didn’t move quickly, someone else would beat me to it. At least I had the key – but that was only half the battle.
What was it for? What was it for?