Opening paragraphs

At the very beginning, when I was starting my very first novel, I wanted to ‘set the scene’ for my readers, and began with a long description of a time and place – actually Barrow-in-Furness in 1916 – which I thought was pretty damn good. Considering what I was describing, steel works, a shipyard, a Victorian town hall, it was positively lyrical, a seagull’s eye view, dropping down to my heroine standing on the town hall steps, waiting for her lover. Lyrical, but no good. The whole thing went in the bin. What sent it there was an exercise I did while on a very good course that was ostensibly about finishing a novel, but turned into how to start it. Our ‘homework’ was to go and find the best opening paragraph and decide what made it so.

The are some classics, in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Bleak House’ for example, and quickly became clear to me that my description of Barrow-in-Furness Town Hall was not of that ilk and would have to go. What replaced it at the start of ‘A Good Liar’ wasn’t brilliant, but it was certainly better. I read it sometimes when I’m talking to groups about the trilogy, and there is often a gratifying ‘Ah,’ after those few opening lines. For some people, that means ‘I’m hooked’ and that’s exactly the effect I was looking for.

In Book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’ I used the great opening sentence that I’m sure has been used many times before, because has such delicious portent: ‘Someone was knocking on the door.’ I recall seeing the movie ‘Sideways’ for the first time. The opening shot is complete darkness, and then the sound of someone hammering on a door. It’s the hero’s door, and the action starts as he wakes, listens, gets out of bed and opens it. I loved that, and remembered it. Incidentally, the same film ends with the same character knocking on another door, as the next phase of his life begins.

Now I’m thinking about the new book, and possible opening paragraphs are rolling through my head. I see a striking, intriguing image, and try to find the words to write it down. The starting point is not words, but a visual image. Is that the way you write?

Try it: pick up a novel and read the opening paragraph. Dissect it. What has the writer decided to do, and why? What do you see from the words on the page? What makes you want to read on, or not?

Maybe I should leave the opening paragraph right to the very end, savouring every detail, every word, until I’m happy. That takes patience, and I have to work very hard at that. Meanwhile the ‘events’ of the new book are beginning to take shape, and the first chapter is forming in my head, even if the first paragraph will have to wait.

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