This weekend I attended a meeting of my local romance authors group, where the workshop topic was “Brilliant Beginnings,” as presented by Vanessa Grant. We talked about hooks, and power words, and story questions, and tone, and sensory input and dialogue. Everyone could agree on the importance to those qualities. We also suggested a hint of the conflict should be present and something of the main character’s personality or background. Quite a lot to pack into a few opening sentences, but we blithely agreed it could all be done.
Then we broke into groups to analyse the openings of several well-known authors and couldn’t agree on anything! In my group, I found the opening lines of Kristan Higgins’ novel, A Perfect Match, made me laugh. I definitely wanted to read more. Others in my same small group complained about a lack of conflict, not enough sensory detail and lack of story question. When other groups reported in, there was a similar difference of opinion.
I was delighted to find disagreement.
I have maintained for some time that the axiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing too. Readers have individual tastes, as do writers. I may find a book that includes a character hooked on x-stitch intriguing while someone else may dismiss it as too old fashioned. Some readers like lots of explicit sex, others, like me, prefer to close the bedroom door. There is no one-size fits all.
This is not to say that studying writing, learning the techniques of successful authors, and practicing the craft is pointless. Those exercises are extremely valuable. For by studying, learning and practicing an author can find her own style, her own set of “rules” and the readers who respond. But as one who finds rules or templates hard to follow, I’m always seeking vindication. Those who lecture on “this is how it’s done,” scare me. I’ve tried to force myself into someone else’s shoes and my muse dried up completely.
So, I say “amen” to a difference of opinion.
What about you, dear readers? Want to play the opening lines game? Here’s a few examples of my favourites. Feel free to disagree.
“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, too! You’d think he would be ashamed!” Venetia by Georgette Heyer
1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
As Clara Morrow approached, she wondered if he’d repeat the same small gesture he’d done every morning.
It was so tiny, so insignificant. So easy to ignore. The first time. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
My house stands at the edge of the earth. the birth house by Ami McKay
Maggie Ann Keaton swung shut the wrought-iron gates of her new home and secured the chain and padlock, giving them a hard tug to make sure they held, and hung a “No Admittance,” sign just for good measure. Love and Lilacs by Mary Alice Valdal
“I can’t believe we’re arguing about a waterbuffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down. Family Tree by Susan Wiggs
Fear churned in Allie Tillman’s nervous stomach, like a butter paddle in a jar of thick cream. Bobbins and Boots by Shanna Hatfield.
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If you enjoy dissecting the openings to books, the blog Writer Unboxed runs a regular feature called Flog a Pro. Enjoy!