Lessons from literature
What makes you read on
So you bought the book. What’s going to make you read on? How did Jane Austen keep her bounce rate down? Equally, how did Leo Tolstoy maintain such a fabulous dwell time?
All the opening sentences from celebrated works of fiction below have something in common. There is enough intrigue and attraction to make you want to close the curtains and read on. Not just for 650 words but a thousand pages.
For some, it is simply that a story has already begun and you want to know what happens next. Others introduce a tone or a world view that is appealing. Some are just weird and you want to solve the mystery.
So-called strategists will tell you content marketing is all about pyramid writing – where the most important points of a story are summarized in the first par.
Ignore them. They have no soul. They are condemning their clients to seven years solitary in the run-down Kent resort of Dull-by-the-Sea.
There are so many other ways to write an opening. Try these.
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
It’s only 23 words, but a whole genre is set out in a single sentence. We know what the book is about. We enjoy the arched eyebrow, the teasing nature of our author. And we can see she writes fabulously.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca
There’s a hell of a lot of information here. Vulnerability, spookiness, foreboding set the scene brilliantly.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
There’s a singularity of thought, a neatness of argument. It’s ringing. Possibly bad things are going to happen, but in a spawling, epic way.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between
A great “settle down and concentrate on the story” opener. Wisdom, a sense of regret and otherworldiness are conveyed.
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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities
You can’t beat a good cadence. It’s big, poetic and portentous. A lot of things are about to happen. We want more.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four
The human mind wants to make sense of things. When we see a puzzle we want to solve it. Whatever’s going on in this strange, parallel universe needs to be explained.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye
So there’s a whole world view here, a sneering but attractive take on things that compelled a generation of troubled youths to read on.
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
Lyrical, sublime, mysterious, melancholic. Like much film script-writing, it places us a point where things have already happened. We’re in the middle of a story; there’s a past and a future in motion.
All children, except one, grow up.
J. M. Barrie: Peter Pan
Almost the whole plot is hinted at in this very simple but intriguing sentence. There's playfulness as well, in the way its modifying clause comes before the main statement.
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.
Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry
Punchy repetition, the adjectives producing an onomatopoeic slurring. It’s short, crisp and places us somewhere. Want to know where? Stay with us.
"Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense."
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Intrigue and a conspiratorial sense of fun. Dursley and Privet alone carry a silliness that makes you want to turn the page. And, obviously, despite everything she says, you just know there’s an awful lot of strange and mysterious stuff just round the corner.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
And by complete contrast… another important technique in writing. The action has already started at the point we join the story.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield
More clocks. A big destiny thing going on here. You could say that the opening is rather prosaic, but it nonetheless conveys a mood.
(Picture: Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's recent version of Anna Karenina)