The first line of a novel has to hook the reader. Every author knows this. We must somehow create such an irresistible, dazzling sentence that the casual browser will find it impossible not to read the rest of the book. Our opening must shock, intrigue, foreshadow mystery, create suspense, set up a ferment of conflict, plant questions. All this, and in a distinctive and original voice, so it will have a chance of being heard among the clamour of so many others.
Do readers ever get tired of these self-conscious opening sentences? Are they sometimes too clever by half, too contrived, or even unrelated to the rest of the novel? I can think of occasional examples where I feel a little grumpy, knowing I am being manipulated.
There is no excuse for a dull first sentence, but I would like to think that too much emphasis is being given to its role in selling a book. Presumably most people, standing in a bookshop, or browsing online, will scan sentences in the middle of the novel to see if they want to bother buying it.
Of course readers want to be assured – and immediately – that it’s a good story with enjoyment guaranteed from the outset. But I think authors can do this without so much agonising, and really by starting as they mean to go on, in a way that is natural to their own style of story-telling. It would certainly save a lot of time and headaches…
As to the rest of that vital first chapter, Anthony Trollope, in one his many asides to the reader, puts it rather well (in chapter nine of his final Palliser novel, The Duke’s Children): Perhaps the method of rushing at once ‘in medias res’ is, of all the ways of beginning a story…the least objectionable. The reader is made to think that the gold lies so near the surface that he will be required to take very little trouble in digging for it.