How to Start Your Novel with a Splash

Splash in a DropImage by Chaval Brasil via Flickr
The hardest part of writing a novel is... the beginning! I don't know about you, but for me, it is something I do and redo and I'm rarely satisfied with it. You know your book has to start with a splash - that's what literary agents and publishers expect, that's what readers want - you just know you've got to do it, but God, it is hard!

Recently Passive Guy had a wonderful post about it where he quoted the openings of current romance bestsellers. Here's his pick:

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
~
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It
~
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
~
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
~
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

A nice selection, right? Which one do you like best?

The reactions to Passive Guy's post were also very interesting. One noted that the first paragraph is no guarantee that the rest of the book is good - she always downloads a sample on her Kindle (that's definitely easier than reading the first 20 pages in a bookstore - no doubt another reason why e-books are such a success).

Several others noted how the last paragraph is more important than the first in the decision to buy (and here is where a physical bookstore has an advantage over online libraries: Amazon doesn't allow you to download the end of a book as a sample).

One (called Zelah) was very vocal about his reading the ending first:
"Yes, the ending. This is because knowing what happens in the end won’t spoil the story for me – but the story WILL be spoilt for me if I read it and get to the end of the book only to find an un-hinted at tragedy, or that it has one of those hugely annoying non-endings where they leave it up to the reader to decide what happens next.
I don’t trust an unknown author to deliver what I want from a book, so I check that they will before I buy.
I will say though that free Kindle books have got me reading new authors and (since I can’t check the end) I’ve been downloading and reading them based on blurb and reviews. I’ve found that it’s the story that keeps me reading. I can generally put up with bad style, even if I don’t like it – but I can’t put up with a poor or boring story."
Fascinating, isn't it? So if you want to reach out to your readers, focus on composing great "blurbs" and getting as many reviews as you can...

As to openings?  Should you forget about them? Hardly. A great writer is always able to produce an arresting opening. As I commented in Passive Guy's post, no one can beat the classics. Take for example Dickens "A Christmas Carol"

“Marley was dead to begin with.There is no doubt whatever about that.The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it.And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
It's tersely written: short, clipped sentences. No long-winded stuff. And Scrooge, the main character is introduced right in the first paragraph. 


That's how to do it! It hits you in the stomach. 
Who can beat that?
Don't you want to become a classic author after you're dead? If you do, work on a splashy beginning!


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