How to Hook Readers with a Compelling Opening
In great film, a moment comes when the last layer of our natural cynicism peels away; we cease trying to figure out what will happen next; we forget that people with clipboards and headsets are running around behind the camera, chewing gum ten feet away. We relax into our seats and give ourselves over to the writer, the director, the actors, to perform their magic, to take us anywhere they please because they have earned our trust, and we are happy to be along for the ride. In film, if it ever occurs, the process can unfold in ten minutes.
With a book, it can happen in the first sentence, the first paragraph, that moment we let go and allow the storyteller to drive us anywhere, because we know that at the helm sits a real writer. It’s the joy of reading. Here are a few classic openings mixed with some of my favorites:
Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.
Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky
Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.
The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which would have me face about and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
Discover Moses and the Bulrushers
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
Annie Proulx's The Shipping News:
HERE is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato:
It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead. The rain fed fungus that grew in the men's boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue.
Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall:
You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn't know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye:
IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
As loose and flowing, natural and rhythmic as they are, these sentences do not come easily; nor do they come quickly. I realize that most of us don’t have time to craft them in our report to the department, or our memorandum for a client, or our brief to the judge. But how inspiring to know it’s possible to capture so much with but a few words. And that if we stretched just a little further in that direction, perhaps that report, that memorandum, that brief, might sing to our audience in a more memorable way.
WordRake will not help us find these words. But it will help us spot the words that get in their way, so we can remove them to clear the air for the words that sing to our reader.