I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that? …
You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?
Honestly, I’d rather read about the old adage than Elizabeth and Ben. Sure, the Elizabeth opening makes me ask questions. “Who are they?” “Are they married?” “Does Elizabeth care?” Unfortunately, it also makes me ask, “And why should I care?”
Elizabeth and Ben are obviously in some sort of dramatic situation. I know that. I don’t know what the stakes are, what they care about, and why I should care about them. “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage” gives me the impression that the writer is settling back to tell me a story. “Elizabeth believed only Ben’s good-bye” gives me the impression that he started in the middle.
But in either case I’d stick with him, at least for a while. You can’t judge a book by its first line. I don’t even think you can judge a book’s opening by its first line. When approaching a novel of a hundred thousand words, a little patience is in order.
It is true that everybody likes to be hooked on the first line – a sort of literary equivalent to “You had me at hello”. It’s nice to be had at hello, but it isn’t vital. What’s vital is to be had at good-bye. Not all good beginnings must be exciting, and even the best beginning is a small thing compared to a good end.
Nor is the first sentence always a reliable predictor of the thousands of sentences that will follow. I am here thinking of Moby Dick – which, as you all know, had one of the greatest opening lines of all time, a triumph of openings, a masterpiece for the ages: Call me Ishmael.
I have never read Moby Dick. My chances of ever reading Moby Dick, unless I wind up stranded with it on a desert island, are very slim. But I have heard from those who have that Call me Ishmael was the best part, and it all went downhill from there. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know this: If the rest of Moby Dick had been as good as its first line, the book would not be kept alive primarily by mandatory English courses.
So if a book has you at hello, or if it doesn’t – be patient. There are many, many words to follow.