Monday, 5 August 2013

In the beginning... by Savita Kalhan

The opening few lines of a book are probably the most important the writer writes. They represent the key to the door, the invitation for the reader to step through and enter the story. Openings are the hook. Obviously the rest of the story must live up to the opening, but without the hook of the beginning, the rest of the story might not get a look in.

Opening lines may set the scene, the tone, the style, the action; they are a unique hook individual to the author, and running through them will be the voice that defines the author – and if you like that author’s voice you come back for more, for more stories by that author. As a reader, if I love one book by a particular writer, I’ll want to read everything else by that writer. “...there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Stephen King

I have an odd habit of writing opening lines, opening paragraphs, and occasionally opening chapters. I’ll work on them when I’m in between books and projects, rewriting them, refining them; I’ll add to the collection too if I’m feeling inspired. I’ve got a whole file of them, full of ideas for stories in a variety of genres, full of characters and a world of voices. I’ll use some of them in creative writing workshops, allowing the pupils to choose an opening paragraph to continue a story. Often I’ll use them myself. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the way I find my next book, the next voice. Having them on the back burner feels very much like having a safety blanket. I don’t really plot a book, I’m not a plotter but a panster, who lets the opening paragraph take me on a journey. The back burner simmers away until one of the openings reaches out and grabs me, ripe and ready to become something more. I used to think that this habit was peculiar to me, until I talked to a few other writers, and recently I read that Stephen King agonises over his opening lines. So maybe I’m not that odd after all! I bet many other writers share the agony over the opening lines... 

Here are a couple of mine: “It’s tough being the new kid, but when you’re not the only one it’s not so bad. The problem was Sam was always the new kid and always the only one...” The Long Weekend 
“I sat staring into space. It was empty, the way space should be, vast, endless, and empty. Except it wasn’t vast and endless. There were four walls and a small window. I was lucky to have a cell with a window...” The Poet, A short story. 

 Here are just a few of my favourite opening lines:
 “Once upon a time...” 
 “Kidnapping children is never a good idea; all the same, sometimes it has to be done...” Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson 
 “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 
 “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Charlotte’s Web by E B White 
 “If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you’d be better off reading some other book.” The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket. 
 “Against the white cliffs, the girl in the red dress was as vivid as a drop of blood.” Cruel Summer by James Dawson. 
 “They come to kill me early in the morning. At 6 am when the sky is pink and misty grey, the seagulls are crying overhead and the beach is empty.” Almost True by Keren David 
 “When Ben got home from school, he found something good, something bad and something worse...” The Catkin by Nick Green 
 “My life might have been so different had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded...” The Vanishing of Katherina Linden by Helen Grant 

Here’s a link to a fun first lines quiz from The Guardian to mull over while you’re having a break:

 What are your favourite first lines? Twitter @savitakalhan


Miriam Halahmy said...

"It was Mrs May who first told me about them." The Borrowers, Mary Norton. What a lovely post Savita and made me think about what I put in my files - its usually an inciting incident, a particular issue and a title.

Heather Dyer said...

Great post - inspiring! Thanks.

Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks Heather!

Miriam - here's an opening from a favourite book for you:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everyone said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet.
And yes, I have clippings and pictures and postcards in another folder...

Richard said...

Not quite the first line of A Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison, but I remember it that way. "the three-ton safe dropped through right on the top of the cop's head. He squashed very nicely, thank you. The cloud of plaster dust settled and all I could see of him was one hand, slightly crumpled. It twitched a bit and the index finger pointed at me accusingly. His voice was a little muffled by the safe and sounded a bit annoyed."

Savita Kalhan said...

Liking the humour in the voice, Richard!

Karen said...

An inspiring post, Savita. I love the opening line from The Graveyard Book. It says such a lot in so few words and you simply have to read on.

Penny Dolan said...

It's interesting that all these opening sentences have an inbuilt contradiction so you have to read on to satisfy the tension of the question that's now running in your head.

Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks Karen. I love that opening line too. There are lots of other openings too where the flavour of the book stays with me.
Penny, yes, it's the contradiction, or the part that's left unsaid that grabs you.

G-spot Vibrator said...

It really is intriguing that these opening up content offer an inbuilt contradiction so you have got to see to match the pressure with the problem that is certainly today jogging in your mind.Multi-speed Vibrator

Saviour Pirotta said...

A great post, Savita. I believe opening lines with a contradiction in them are called teasers.

Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks, Saviour. There are lots of other opening lines I really like too apart from the teaser variety, but the teaser seems to work nicely for a pacier teen/YA book, and thrillers in general I guess.

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Anonymous said...

Not from a book for younger readers but still fresh in my memory decades later: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Congrats on publication. Jas Singh

Savita Kalhan said...

Jas Singh - is that you? From Aber? If it is, then HI! I've been looking for you. Hope you're well. Please get in touch. Savita