Arresting Attention

The topic of the hour is superheroes, so I am going add my two cents, or less, to the conversation swirling around this cultural and cinematic phenomenon.

I was never that into superheroes.

On to a new topic. Good openings, endlessly emphasized in modern fiction, are defined by being evocative, and it doesn’t really matter of what. What counts is arresting the attention of the reader, whether through humor, originality, mystery, or a felicitous turn of phrase. Here is a list of beginnings that showcase the art of the good opening, being not only evocative but memorable. You will note that famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences, such as “Call me Ishmael,” are omitted from this list. You will also note that other famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences are included. There is no good reason for this.

Please share in the comments any book openings that would complete this list, or whether any opening included makes you want to pick up its book.


There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. William E. Barrett, The Lilies of the Field

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Eleanor Gustafson, The Stones

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path. Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

April is the cruellest month. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, “The Seventh Sally

Monsters do, of course, exist. Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map

Beginning – and Ending – Well

So let’s talk about one of my pet peeves.

The writing community is, these days, quite occupied with good openings. On writing blogs, in discussions and critiques, at the writing conference I attended last month – it comes up again and again: the Opening; Are Your Readers Hooked?

Taken individually, there’s nothing wrong with any of these posts or discussions; they were all interesting and informative in their own right. But taken together, they show a fixation with openings that strikes me as out of proportion to the actual importance of openings.

Oh, I know openings are important – beginning of the story, first impressions and all that. But the first five hundred words of a novel don’t hold a candle to its plot, characters, and style. And why, in all the attention to openings, does no one pause to discuss endings?

The way some people talk about openings, you would think the purpose was not to begin the story but to sell the book: This will be good! Any writer who can make an opening into a promise like that has accomplished something worthwhile. But if the opening is a promise, the ending is the fulfillment. A good ending is far more vital to any story than a good opening, but people appear less interested in it.

I think one reason for this is that you can snip the opening of a book and critique it to see if it fulfills its purpose (“hooking” the reader). But you can’t snip the end of a book and critique it for its success in its purpose (satisfying the reader). You cannot ultimately analyze the end of a book until you’ve read the rest of it.

And, I would contend, you cannot give final judgment on the opening of a book until you’ve read the rest of it. The judgment of a journey’s starting point is more reliable once you know the journey’s destination. You can, reading an opening, pick out its weaknesses, but you can’t properly weigh them. That it took J. R. R. Tolkien two hundred pages to get out of the Shire is certainly a flaw, and you’d know it without going past the two hundred pages. What you wouldn’t know is that in the vast breadth of the work of Lord of the Rings, it’s a small flaw.

I cast a vote for patience with openings – and, for that matter, more attention to endings.

You Had Me At Hello

A couple weeks ago I checked into Becky Miller’s blog on writing and found a post on Hooks Versus Openings. While analyzing what sort of novel opening is best, she quoted Jerry Jenkins:

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.