How time and readers’ expectations have affected opening sentences
Discussing the significance of opening sentences is a touchstone topic amongst writers groups. For an author, a good first line can deliver vital information, a hook, a hint towards theme or the immediate establishment of mood. However, in recent years there has been a noticeable change to the style of opening sentences.
The Classics vs The Contemporaries
Famous first sentences that are often recited from classic literature include:
‘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.’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
‘Mother died today.’ Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
The above sentences have become infamous because they are from recognised distinguished works and they encompass the heart of their respective novel within a single sentence. Dickens poetically alludes to the novel’s themes of family, love, hatred and oppression; Austen ironically encompasses the ideology of her characters and the novel’s core narrative drive by foreshadowing the courtship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy; Vladimir describes Humbert’s encompassing (though inappropriate) love for his Lolita (Dolores Haze), the melodramatic quality of this line hints towards the character’s obsession, casting a dark mood over the opening page; Camus hooks the reader with what could be considered one of life’s most dramatic moments, the death of a parent. (However, it’s not until lines two-to-six that the reader discovered Mersault’s indifference towards his mother’s death).
It is unlikely that the reader recognises the subtle manipulation of this sentences upon first reading: how the author has introduced their fictional worlds by hinting towards themes, character ideologies or foreshadowing. Dickens and Austen published their infamous works at a time when the purchasing of literature was a luxury. Unlike now where books are readily available and usually affordable, books were produced with the expectation—the intention—that they would be re-read. Therefore, the significance, the pleasure of these carefully crafted lines would not be recognised until a second reading. This practice likely influenced the authors of the twentieth century who sought to replicate this reading experience within their own works of fiction.
Perhaps it is the legacy of these monolithic lines that has caused a mild anxiety amongst contemporary authors when it comes to the meticulous crafting of their own novel beginnings. Stephen King discussed his methodology in an essay for the Atlantic, stating that he can spends months, even years conjuring up the perfect opening sentence.
‘When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.’
Zadie Smith says, at least hyperbolically, that 80% of her effort goes into the first 20 pages, ‘[once that’s done] everything just flows from there.’
Though the pressure to compete with these legendary authors is enough within itself, new problems have arisen in contemporary publishing. The pressure to produce the ideal first sentence is not only an internal desire of the authors, but external demand from readers and as a result, publishing houses.
With the well-documented shrinking of the publishing industry it is becoming harder and harder for not only emerging writers, but established writers as well to get their work published. This has caused an increase in the demand for works of fiction that can instantly grab the shrinking attention span of the masses. As a society, we are busier than we have ever been before; despite the rise of ‘time-saving’ technology and appliance—from washing machines to smart-phones—we appear to actually have less time as we fill our lives with full-time work, study, fitness programs, family commitments and domestic duties. A human being in 2017 processes more information in a single day than any man or woman would have processed in an entire year in the eighteenth century. When free time does present itself, there are now multiple sources of entertainment at our fingertips: tv, gaming, movies, the internet, social media. All of which are highly interactive.
If a person can choose between a screen and a book, chances are the screen will win every time. This is why contemporary opening sentence, especially in popular fiction (though this trend include literary fiction as well), has to immediately hook the reader. The sentence must establish a sense of action and intrigue. The reader has to be instantly engaged with the voice, with the character whose world they are about to become a part of. A problem must be immediately identified, even if that problem changes in chapter two. The first sentence, the first paragraph, that first page is the author’s best shot at keeping the reader in the book and away from their smart phone. The more readers they can hook, the more people hear about the book and consequently, more books get sold. That’s the snowball effect.
Of course, before a manuscript is even printed, it has to be picked up by a publisher. Publishers are well aware of readers expectations and the changing landscape of literature. They know what they are up against. There are two avenues to traditional publishing, either you can get an agent who will pitch on your behalf, or you submit to open calls A.K.A the ‘slush piles.’ If your lucky enough to get an agent and have your manuscript handed directly to the editor of a publishing house, then congratulations, but remember this: publishing is a business and publishers know that a book is unlikely to do well if the first chapter is a slow burner. An editor’s time is short and they need to be as instantly impressed as any reader. Most publishers want to see the first three chapters of a manuscript before asking for the rest of your novel, and the first thing they are going to read is the first sentence, the first page. If you have fifty manuscripts sitting on your desk, you’re probably not going to read every page. You’re going to read the first page, and if that’s good, you’ll move to the second. If the opening sentence/page isn’t ‘hooky’ enough, or engaging enough, the editor will likely pull out the next manuscript from their towering pile.
If you’ve submitted your work through an open call portal, you’ll be met with a similar conundrum. The entry level staff members who are paid to read manuscript after manuscript looking for the next hopeful best-seller need to be instantly impressed too. These staff members are churning through the company’s large volume of manuscripts as quickly as possible. If that first line doesn’t grab them, like the editor, they too will move onto the next hopeful applicant.
The Emerging of a Formula
When examining the opening lines from recently published novels, a noticeable formula emerges:
‘Wake up, genius.’ Stephen King, Finders Keepers (2015)
‘I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips.’ Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross (2001)
‘The Christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.’ Ann Patchett, Commonwealth (2016)
These three examples all aim to hook the reader instantly as they simultaneously hint towards character backstory while also started in the middle of action. Virginia Wolf famously said, ‘One longs for a device that is not a trick’ and one could argue that this trend towards catchy and engaging opening lines has become a modern literary parlour trick.
Raymond Chandler is known as the champion of detective crime fiction, but it is unlikely that the opening line of his 1939 classic The Big Sleep would be published today: ‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.’
The style of Gabaldon’s, King’s and Patchett’s opening lines are vastly different to Chandler’s. The former all begin with a hook or tease that suggests something more. However, these three examples do provide the reader with important information; Gabaldon establishes setting as well as character and backstory, King hooks his readers with what reads like urgent dialogue while hinting at potential character relations and Patchett sets the scene with location and problem: Albert Cousins and his gin are about to change everything. So, it would be dismissive to simply label these lines as mere ‘tricks’.
However, Chandler, who published a good sixty years earlier, opens with the weather; a move that strongly goes against Elmore Leonard’s ‘Ten Rules for Writing’. The opening of The Big Sleep is neither good nor bad, but is noticeably different to the other three examples. Though it would have been equally difficult to be published in the 1930s & 40s, this change in trend appears to be less about the preferences of publishing houses and more about the preferences of their readers.
In justification of Chandler’s classic, the novel’s third line neatly meets the requirements of today’s publishing standards: ‘I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.’ Were Chandler submitting to publishers today, and if he exchanged the first sentence for the third, it is likely his work would still find its way onto booksellers’ shelves.
The Reader and The Writer
In reality, publishing houses are the middle men between the writer and the reader; this trend towards ‘hooky’ opening lines has formed in response to the market. Today, readers want stories that start with a bang, that hint towards character, backstory and theme. They want page-turning novels that will keep them awake past midnight and into the early morning. They, at least most, do not want fiction that starts with the weather.
Though this could be seen as a depressing factor to a budding author, it shouldn’t. Instead, it is merely a reality that must be accepted. After all, writing is a craft, and the author is still required to construct a beautiful and telling open sentence, only now the focus has shifted. Rather than hinting towards theme or mood, like Austen or Dickens once did, the author is encouraged to establish some form of intrigue (whether it be through a problem or starting in the of middle of an action scene). And of course, a good writer can still establish theme or mood while also meeting the requirements of a ‘hooky’ opening sentence.
Charles, D. (1942). A Tale of Two Cities. New York, Dodd, Mead & Co.
Austen, J. (1995). Pride and prejudice. New York, Modern Library.
Nabokov, V. (1995) Lolita. London, Penguin.
Camus, A. (1988) The Stranger. New York, Cambridge University Press.
Fassler, J. (2013) Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months, even Years’ Working on Opening Sentences. The Atlantic. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-stephen-king-spends-months-and-even-years-writing-opening-sentences/278043/
New York University (2013) Salon Series: A Conversation with Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides, New York University. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvvjWhFlV38&t=165s
King, S. (2015) Finders Keepers. New York, Scribner.
Gabaldon, D. (2001) The Fiery Cross. London, Penguin.
Patchett, A. (2016) Commonwealth. New York, Great Britain.
Chandler, R. (1939). The Big Sleep. London, Penguin.
Leonard, E. Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Writing. Gotham Writers. https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/tips-masters/elmore-leonard-10-rules-for-good-writing
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