So I’m gearing up (slowly) to start on my next novel, and in preparation I’m thinking about openings. The opening of my laslt unpublished novel was probably the weakest part, and it’s something that I always struggle with. While pondering the ways in which my next WIP will begin, I decided to have a look at the openings of several of my favorite novels, to make a study of what they do, and what I can learn from them.
The parameters are simple: I’m looking at the first chapter of first books (if the book is part of a series), and the first sentences and first paragraphs of that chapter. It has to be a book I’ve already read, so that I can compare the opening with what I know of the rest of the book, and it has to be a book that I liked. I’ll also be sticking to genre works, and though I will use books by some famous authors, I’ll try to stick to earlier works. (The idea being that a BNA has more leeway to experiment with different kinds of openings, while I don’t.) I’m also open to suggestions if my readers (both of them) care to make them.
First up: Devices and Desires by KJ Parker. I’ll print the opening paragraph, with the opening line in bold:
“The quickest way to a man’s heart,” said the instructor, “is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye-socket.”
Thoughts: The first sentence is nothing special. If this were a short story, I might even recommend changing it. In a novel, you have a little more leeway–maybe as much as a page–before a reader or editor will reject you, so this is evidently okay. (Or so I’ve heard.) The second sentence that finished the paragraph is where the meat is: it illustrates the black humor that will permeate the novel, sets the tone, and establishes the theme of warfare. We already know that this will be a book about violence–specifically, as we’ll see in the next paragraph, fencing. There may be a double meaning in the instructor’s words as well: it turns out that our protag is in love, as a pretty young duchess has gotten into his brain and heart through his eye, and the results will be no less devastating than a simple rapier into the brain. Finally, this line is repeated almost verbatim at the opening of the next two books in the trilogy, providing important thematic continuity.
The second paragraph of this novel is so excellent that I feel compelled to share it, as well:
Like a whip cracking, he uncurled his languid slouch into the taut, straight lines of the lunge. His forearm launched from the elbow like an arrow as his front leg plunged forward, and the point of the long, slim sword darted, neat as a component in a machine, through the exact center of the finger-ring that dangled from a cord tied to the beam.
Now that is some really fine action writing. Take a look at those verbs: cracking, launched, plunged, darted. Notice also the phrase “neat as a component in a machine”–echoing another of the trilogy’s themes, that of mechanism and machinery.
Notice that we haven’t gotten any names yet. The protag is first mentioned in paragraph three.
The rest of the chapter:
The protag, young Duke Valens (though he isn’t actually Duke until the end of the chapter), is at a fencing lesson. This lasts for three pages, by the end of which we have a pretty clear understaning of Valens’ character. He is resentful of his father and doesn’t like being a Duke, but he is also fiercely determined, talented, and smart. Parker shows us all of this through Valens’ internal dialogue, without once resorting to overt characterization.
On page four we realize that Valens is in love. The girl he wants isn’t named at first–she’s just “she”, which is perfectly appropriate given the close 3rd POV that Parker uses. Valens is trucked off to a state dinner, where we see the representatives of a neighboring, industrialized country, and where Valens actually gets to talk to his crush. We’re introduced to the political situation and learn a little about the duchess’s character, and then…
In the second half of the chapter something strange happens. We skip a few years, find out second-hand that the duchess has been married to someone else, kill off the old Duke, and make Valens the new Duke. And then chapter two begins in a different country, roughly ten years later.
So everything in chapter one turns out to be backstory, introducing us to the pieces that will be in play when the main plot arc begins in the second chapter. This works because it’s not told as backstory: all of the description is vivid and immediate, and plenty of things happen. There is no shortage of action and character in the first chapter, and our attention is never allowed to wander.