Buds are full of promise. How large will this one get, how fragrant, how multi-faceted, and will the culmination prove worth the wait? If a bud is a rich with potential, how much more so a novel’s first sentence, paragraph, page, chapter. There you entice readers. Or lose them.
Openings hint at what we can expect, help us decide if we should await the outcome. Contrast these:
Our quick breath encircled our heads in the late-winter air as he pulled me by the hand, through lines of Model Ts and Cadillac Coupes, toward the glow of the Colonial Theatre. My body coursed with elation and guilt, every bit as intoxicating as the rum drinks he'd mixed for us out of the trunk of his car. The frenzy of the Jazz Age had overflowed from the cities into smaller towns like ours in music, film, fashion, and literature, resulting in restlessness and tension between generations and ideals. Fueled by the energy of the new, we had toasted our agreement: That night it was only us in the world, and we would live like it was ours. He'd lifted a triple-stranded pearl necklace over my head and set it on my skin, kissing the scar on my collarbone, a relic from the first night we'd found each other. He whispered that the necklace was only costume jewelry, but one day he'd buy me the real thing. --Erika Robuck, Fallen Beauty
Here’s a very different beginning:
The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators. She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain. “I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone. From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood. “The rain,” he said. —Nino Ricci, The Origin of Species
Individual readers will prefer one approach over the over. And why?
- Contrast the depth. Which probes psychology in a way that intrigues you?
- Evaluate the scenario. What grabs you, and why?
- Consider the language. Which seems more vital? Original?
- Check the syntax. Which types and variety of sentences meet your needs?
- Respond to the imagery. Does it stimulate your senses?
- Meet the characters. Do you want to follow them—or flee?
- Note the point of view. Is it the kind of window into a world you’re looking for?
- Reader participation. How free must you be to reach your own conclusions?
Tip: Your novel’s opening matters more than anything that follows.