It’s a cliche repeated in every creative writing group, or Eng Lit class, from here to Timbuktu; a great novel needs a gripping, intriguing, killer opening line.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune, is in want of a wife.
Those are three outstanding examples that not only set the tone, and offer the reader a clue as to the nature of the tale to be told, but are well-crafted, concise and almost poetic. There are lessons in Shakespeare for every writer, and the sheer balance, the timbre, the lyrical finesse that Shakespeare had are always worth reaching for. Aim high, even if your writing doesn’t quite hit the peaks that the true greats could scale with ease.
But there is a lot more to writing than one perfect line and for me it’s the power of the novel to illuminate truth, touch the core of what makes us human, that really matters. A story that stretches out over say 80,000-100,000 words needs more than one or two brilliant fireworks to light the imagination.
For example, the subtle, complex examination of what makes a man lose his moral compass, Graham Greene’s Heart of The Matter, opens with the following;
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel, with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.
Is it a great line? I’d argue it’s fairly average, faintly comical in fact, which is the exact opposite of this gloomy book. But the novel itself is profound, moving and draws you into a world that has no real meaning left, no moments of sweetness, no crumbs of love to comfort a lost soul. Heart of The Matter is a 20th century classic and it doesn’t need a balletic twirl of the author’s pen to set the scene right from the get-go. It just chugs relentlessly onwards, becoming more Turneresque, almost Moby Dick, as the tale unfolds.
Here’s the opening line from one of the biggest selling novels of the 1970s – it sold over 15 million copies
There is something very exciting about the beginning of the evening – well, the beginning of my evening, usually about ten-thirty, eleven o’clock.
Not overwhelming is it? A bit dull, workmanlike perhaps?
Well that book was The Bitch by Jackie Collins. Not great art, but you know what, it helped buy her a mansion in California and a ticket to global fame as a writer and film producer. Not every great novel needs an opener that captivates the reader instantly, or fascinates your senses with its deft, clever touch. Sometimes, writers can just tap into the moments, the life that’s around them, or define the times they live in through the feel, dialogue and culture that the characters inhabit.
A bestseller doesn’t always have to be something as moving, life-changing or brilliant as the finest work from Jane Austen, Dickens, Graham Greene, F Scott-Fitzgerald or Mary Shelley.
Never knock popularity too much, because not every great book is a fantastic work of literature. Writing a perfect piece of candy floss entertainment starts with a simple tap-tap-tap upon the keyboard. You don’t need a witty one-liner to grab the reader by the eyelids – novels ain’t Instagram baby. And who is to judge what makes a great story; you, the readers, or critics 100 years from now?
What does it matter? Just keep writing.