Thursday, September 3, 2009

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night....

The first few sentences of a a novel are critical. Often they determine whether or not the reader will keep reading. This is especially true of mystery novels, because the whole point of the novel is to keep the reader engaged and interested in finding out what happened. The first few sentences are much like the first impression we get of someone new that we meet. First impressions of books and of people are lasting. To see what I mean, think about the books that you've read. Have you ever ended up really liking a book when the first page left you cold? Of course, that can happen, but it's not very common.

So what makes a good beginning to a book? One thing that I learned from the publisher of my book, Publish or Perish was that the beginning of the book should orient the reader in time and place. I agree. When I read a mystery novel, I want to start by knowing who the story will be about and where and when it takes place. Here's an example. It's the first sentence of Robin Cook's Outbreak: "A twenty-one-year-old Yale biololgy student by the name of John Nordyke woke up at ddawn at the edge of a village north of Bumba, Zaire." The date is also listed. That kind of opening gives the reader an immediate sense of time and place. It gets the reader's attention.

Some people think a novel should begin with dialogue. Certainly dialogue gets the reader's attention, just as someone speaking might. Here's the first line of Colin Dexter's The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, as an example:

" 'Well, what do you think?' The Dean of the Foreign Examinations Syndicate addressed his question directly to Cedric Voss, the Chairman of the History Committee."

The first sentence makes the reader want to find out more. That's one important purpose of a first line. I see the point of beginning with dialogue, so long as there is also some sense of time and place and speaker, so that the reader feels oriented.

Another really interesting way to begin a novel is with a short, cryptic sentence, such as this one from Dicey Deere's The Irish Village Murder:

"At first Torey didn't see the child."

A sentence like that makes the reader want to read more. It makes the reader keep reading, and there can be no better compliment to an author han to have a reader want to read more.

Here's the first sentence from my own B-Very Flat:

"Serena Brinkman smiled as she took a deep breath of the crisp October air."

I think it tells the reader something right away, and hopefully makes the reader wonder who Serena is, and what happens to her. I hope so.

What are your favorite beginnings? Which novels have gotten your attention right from the start??

Now, for something fun. Below is a list of novels. Below that is a list of first lines. See if you can match the novels to their first lines. I'll write the answers in tomorrow's blog :). Have fun!

1. Seizure - Robin Cook

2. Four to Score - Janet Evanovich

3. Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie

4. Murder at the Kennedy Center - Margaret Truman

5. The Dead of Jericho - Colin Dexter

A. " 'Books!,' said Tuppence."

B. "Monday, Feburary 22, 2001, was one of those surprisingly warm midwinter days that falsely prophesied the arrival of spring to the inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard."

C. "Living in Trenton in July is like living in a big pizza oven."

D. "Not remarkably beautiful, he thought."

E. "Moments ago, she'd been angry and filled with the bravado such anger generates."

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