Last night I was invited on to BBC Radio 5 Live to talk about the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s novel writing aspirations. (Apparently he has recently admitted to having the start of a ‘shockingly bad’ novel hidden away in a bottom drawer. Don’t we all?)
Imagine my surprise when, instead of the promised informal chat about story structure and Nick Clegg’s reading habits (Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Coetzee), I found myself being subjected to a ‘famous first lines’ quiz with my fellow guest , poet Goff Morgan.
Having been too slow on The Tale of Two Cities, it was with considerable relief that I recognised Pride and Prejudice and, by a lucky fluke, correctly hit on Harry Potter for the next one. Feeling I had now pretty much exhausted my knowledge of famous first lines, I was relieved when the result was declared a draw, only to discover that plans had changed and the entire programme was going to focus on the importance of first lines.
Now I have always believed there were essentially three criteria necessary to write a successful novel, the ability to string a few sentences together (Nick Clegg was once a journalist and has written a number of non fiction books so we can assume he would be OK on this one), the ability to tell a compelling story (not sure about NC’s prowess in this department, although like most politicians he likes to spin a good yarn) and the ability and determination to stick it out for 100,000 or so words (he’s clearly fallen at this hurdle before.)
Wonderful opening sentences, useful though they are, have always come quite a long way down my list of more specific requirements (see my post ‘5 tell-tale signs of a novice novelist’). So when the Radio 5 Live host asked me (before I had recovered from the stress of the unexpected quiz) to explain why they are so critical I found myself re-examining my ambivalent feelings towards them even as I answered the question.
A good opening line can set the tone of the novel, it can introduce a character, a location, a mood, it can intrigue the reader, ask a question, hint at excitement to come and so on. It is like a tiny hook to capture the reader’s attention and as such it is clearly important. But, if the second, third and fourth sentences fail to keep the reader on the hook, then that first line has been rendered useless, however perfectly crafted it was.
Then, as listeners calls began to pour in with opening lines for us to comment on, I realised that I am perhaps alone in my rather dismissive attitude. People clearly love first lines and attach a huge amount of importance to them.
So all I can really say is, yes, opening lines are important, but don’t agonise over them for too long. Just write on, put the real effort into creating authentic characters and a compelling story structure, then come back and tidy up the first (and the second and third) line later.