Thursday, 26 May 2011

First Lines

How we react when we read the first lines of a book or a short story will determine our attitude to it. It has to convince us to read on, in the case of a novel, convince us so much that we spend our hard earned cash on it. There are various techniques we can use to do this. Take this beginning, from Laura Lockington's Stargazey Pie:

Nobody understands the meaning of the word embarrassment unless they have travelled on a packed InterCity train with a small masturbating monkey. Although the monkey, Jicky, was packed into a wicker cat basket, he could be clearly seen indulging in his favourite, well, his only, hobby through the door of the basket.

She's using several techniques -

The surprise - shock even - of the first line.
The conversational tone.
The irony of "his favourite, well, his only, hobby" - he's a monkey, and monkeys don't usually have hobbies.
Sympathy for the un-named, but terminally embarrassed, escort for Jicky.
And agreement - you would understand the meaning of the word embarrassment in those circumstances.
Humour - the circumstances are embarrassing, but also comic.

I think it's an effective first paragraph; it's certainly memorable and grabs the reader.

The problem is that it will also be a complete turn off for many readers. Did I buy the book? No, because I don't want to read anything that features a small masturbating monkey and, even if Jicky doesn't feature much, there are plenty of other books out there that offer the same humour and ironic tone without a monkey, masturbating or otherwise.

But you can't expect that everyone in the world is going to love your book. Reading is a subjective experience and we're all different and have different tastes. Check out your first paragraph and see how many reasons there are for a reader to carry on.


Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t obsess over first lines – I think most readers will at least give you the benefit of a whole paragraph before making their mind up – but I do appreciate it when an author has a good one although who says that just because someone can write a great fifty or sixty words he’s going to keep up that standard for the next fifty or sixty thousand? My favourite opening though has to go to Iain Banks:

'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.' (The Crow Road)

Christine said...

'First lines are easy. It's all the other ones that are difficult.' Moliere said something like that. Although I really appreciate a good first line, I know what Moliere meant.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, I love that beginning - makes me want to rush to the bookcase.

Christine, oh and me too, me too.