History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 November 2008

Setting the Stage - Opening Lines

Rifle fire peppered the air. Charles Fraser came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Mélanie froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in bed. Another hale of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the oak door panels.

That’s currently the opening paragraph of the book I'm working on, which has the working title of Charles & Mélanie Book #4. The lines will very likely change during subsequent drafts, but working on a new book has me thinking about the crucial opening sentences of a novel. They can be daunting to an author–so daunting that I tend to force myself to get something down and not stare at the computer screen too long in writing a first draft. There’s so much one wants to accomplish in those sentences–establish character, setting, mood, theme–above all, draw the reader into the story. For the historical novelist, there's a particular challenge to set the time period and setting, perhaps establish connections to real people and events. World-building is particularly important for the historical novelist, as it is for the fantasy or science fiction author.

Here are some opening paragraphs that have drawn me in. I wrote this blog post originally for my own website, but when I decided to repost it here (I'm subbing today), I realized that all the examples are either historical fiction, books actually written in an historical era, or (in one case) fantasy. All of them, in different ways, do an effective job of world-building.

“Lymond is back.” It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.

From The Game of Kings, the first book of the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. Right away, the opening establishes a world of intrigue and adventure. You know you’re in Scotland and while the exact era may not be clear, the word choices (It was known, should not have carried) strike a note that isn’t modern. Above all, the opening sentences establish Lymond as a mysterious, fascinating person one wants to know more about. Which one could say is the core of the entire series.

The butler, recognizing her ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favored Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly connected persons, would be happy to see him. Sir Horace, unimpressed by this condescension, handed his caped greatcoat to one of the footmen, his hat and cane to the other, tossed his gloves onto the marble-topped table, and said that he had no doubt of that, and how was Dassett keeping these days?

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. A much quieter opening, but I remember being completely drawn in by it at the age of ten. The detail sets up the Regency world beautifully. Actions characterize both Dassett and Sir Horace. And the arrival of a family member who has, by implication, not been to visit in some time, sets up that the ordinary world is about to change.

The play–for which Briony has designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper–was written in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north.

From Atonement by Ian McEwan. We’re pulled immediately in the world of the young Briony. Her youth and emotional intensity (both of which are key to the story which is to unfold) come through and the wonderfully specific details (folding screen, red crêpe paper) begin to establish the world of the English country house in which the book opens. Again, there’s the sense of a world about to change with the arrival of outsiders. Most important, the book begins with a writer absorbed in creation, setting up the theme of the book.

The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for month was seeing him every day at work.

From The Silicon Mage, the second book in the Windrose Chronicles, by Barbara Hambly. We know at once that we’re in a fantasy world, and yet at the same time a world grounded in reality (every day at work). We get a touch of Joanna (the heroine)’s tenacious sense of humor even in dire straits. And we want to read on to see what on earth is going on :-).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered to be the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The driving force of the book, summed up with economical irony in the first sentence. Austen doesn’t begin with specific characters, it’s more a wide-angle shot, which sets up the world and the social pressures against which the story will play out, and also establishes the dry, ironic tone of the book. But though there aren’t specific characters, there’s the plot premise–wealthy single man (men) settle in a new neighborhood and every local family sees the prospect of husbands for their daughters.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading among the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.

From The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell novel, by Laurie R. King. It totally sucked me into the world of the book the first time I read it. There’s a surprising amount of setting detail (Sussex Downs, 1915, war year, sheep, gorse bushes) but all couched in Russell’s distinctive voice so you don’t feel you’re being inundated with information. Russell comes through as a vivid character, and the promise of learning about what happened when she nearly stepped on Sherlock Holmes keeps the reader turning the pages.

Thursday, June 18 The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal. And although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

From Have his Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers. Not first person, but the dry tone fits with Harriet’s pov and frames a surprising amount of back story. Harriet’s lover’s murder, her trial, and acquittal, and her present state of mind. As well as the current state of her relationship with Peter, which sets up their conflict in the book. And there’s perhaps a hint that Harriet is protesting too much which also foreshadows the future.

What draws you into a book? Any particularly effective openings to recommend? Writers, how do you approach the opening sentences of a new book? Do you craft them endlessly or dash off something and find you stick with it? Do you consciously consider where to start and why or is it instinctive?

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Marvelous and provocative post, Tracy! My agent and I have had several discussions on what makes a memorable opening line or paragraph and we hoydens have discussed it here as well. As a writer, do we open with a bang as you are doing with your Charles and Melanie wip, and (as readers) do we also prefer that immediate, gut-grabbing way of drawing one in (editors certainly to, so I've been told) -- or do we prefer the opening that unfolds gradually, sometimes over several pages. The opening of Corelli's Mandolin takes about 4 chapters (each one compelling) before you begin to see the strands of disparate stories and characters beginning to weave together. It's easy to give up on the novel if you're seeking a fast-paced linear plot, but the tone is so lyrical, the writing so lush, and the characters so interesting that you keep turning the pages.

And as far as opening lines go, even Charles M. Schulz couldn't resist continually quoting Edward Bulwer Lytton's opening line of Paul Clifford : "It was a dark and stormy night..."

or, as the sentence continues in all its florid Victoriana:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

For all the mockery this opening sentence has endured over the decades, even sparking a famous purple prose contest, I rather like it.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So many excellent questions and examples, Tracy. Thanks for the fascinating post.

To my mind, no opening sentence will ever beat "Call me Ishmael."

The layers of urgency, informality, and contingency... the questions implicit in 5 syllables: What kind of world are we in when it doesn't matter what a man's real name is? Surely not one where family or property will come to bear. What sort of man takes the name of a mythic outcast? The sort who doesn't truly care what you think of him because perhaps you're an outcast in the new American democracy too.

The remainder of the paragraph is wordy, witty, almost windy, Victorian -- unwinding against the overtones of that first sentence.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Love the discussion -- and you all have picked openings that made me nod in recognition..

In my own writing I want an opening that grabs the reader, From LOVERS KISS: "Michael Garrett slowed his horse to a stop. Pulling off his gloves he put a hand on his pistol never taking his eyes from the drift of snow twenty yards ahead.

A last touch of winter, mottled shades of white, banked against a fallen tree. Yes, spring was slow in coming. God knew it was cold enough for patches of snow to outlast the calendar.

But snow did not move."

One opening line that sucked me in: "She wasn't at all the kind of woman he usually had an affair with."

This is from a Jayne Krentz Silhouette -- so you know how old that is. But I think it is what made me look at openings and see them as important.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Dickens was a master of the opening line. From A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair" or the opening of David Copperfield, "Whether I shall turn out to be her hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages will show."

And the opening of GWTW, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

I think I spend hours, nay, months, working on the opening line of my manuscripts.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for all the wonderful examples, everyone! Amanda, I rather like the "dark and stormy night" opening too (one reviewer hated the opening of "Secrets of a Lady"--"It was the sort of night that cloaks a multitude of sins"--I think perhaps because it had too much that sort of sound. I agree it's hard to decide whether to open with "with a bang" or more slowly. In the latter case the challenge is to keep the reader engaged and let the reader have a sense of where the story is going. In the former you have to weave enough information into the action opening to engage the reader with the story and characters and set the scene.

Pam, "Call me Ishmael" is a wonderful opening line. I realize none of the examples I choose begin with dialogue, but I think dialogue (particularly very strong dialogue like that, which raises a lot of questions in the reader's mind as you point out) can make for a great opening.

Mary, the opening of LOVER'S KISS definitely has me drawn in. Sets the place and raises interesting questions about the character. And that Jayne Ann Krentz opening line is great too.

Elizabeth, I love Dickens openings, particularly the two you quoted. The "Tale of Two Cities" opening is more of the "wide angle shot" variety, like the P&P opening--establishing the world and themes of the book. "David Copperfield" on the other hand, sets up that the story is going to be a personal narrative of a young man's life. The GWTW opening is also great--interesting that this grand, sweeping novel begins with a very specific, intimate scene. A girl on the terrace with her two suitors.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most engaging post, Tracy! Last weekend I attended a workshop with Mary Buckham on "pacing," in which she said Openings should have story-question hooks--not just one, but two or more--in the first sentence... the beginning of the third paragraph, after the first page... etc. I'm now grinding my teeth over revising
my "old" opening.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Of course, there is no real dialogue in Moby Dick between the narrator and the reader, but you're right, Tracy, the strength of the narrator's interpolation makes it seem so.

I love openings that address the reader, that make the reader aware of his own position in the transaction.

I don't think young people read The Catcher in the Rye anymore, but (speaking of Dickens) its beginning sentence knocked my socks off, and Michael's too, when we read it as young teens:

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 the truth.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Here is a current favorite -- yes, it is the third book in a series but it still grabbed me from first line:

"I'd die for him.

No, wait a minute....that's not where this is supposed to begin.

I know that. But left to my own devices,I'd prefer to skim over the events of the next few weeks, and whisk you through those days with glossed-over details that cast me in a more flattering light.

Nobody looks good in their darkest hour."

From Karen Monings FAEFEVER

10:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I find that I'm torn about openings. I love the ones that "set the scene" so to speak, but I do find myself instantly thinking "Whose POV are we supposed to be in?" and that sucks me out of the book. *sigh*

Mostly I prefer openings where I'm immediately grounded in a specific POV (as with your new book; I KNOW I'm in Charles's POV).

10:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Carolyn, that sounds like a fascinating workshop. I do think the best opening sentences do ask questions that are hooks get one to read on to learn more (one reason I love the "Silicon Mage" opening is that it so very much is a hook).

Pam, "dialgoue" was the wrong word, but there's a dialogue feel to the line (in stark contrast to the openings of P&P and "Tale of Two Cities." "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" opening has that a bit too, but it has a more first-person written narrative feel, whereas "Call me Ishmael" sounds like words spoken directly to the reader. I love the "Catcher in the Rye" opening, particularly alongside "David Copperfield."

Mary, the opening of "Faefever" is a great--talk about making you want to read on to see what's happening. And I think if I were a reader of the series, coming in deeply engaged with these characters, I'd be on tenterhooks.

Kalen, I think the trend these days is so openings grounded strongly in a pov, and I do think in general they pull the reader in better. It's funny, though, with "Secrets of a Lady"/"Daugther of the Game," I decided I needed an opening that established London because London was such an important "character" in the book.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


It intrigues me that the opening of "The Grand Sophy" worked so well for me (even as a child of ten, presumably a more impatient reader than I am now). It doesn't begin with action and drama and it's omniscient pov. But I was riveted.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sometimes I think it depends on genre too. I EXPECT different things from romance, sci-fi/fantasy, historical fiction, lit fic, etc. Romance, being IMO, all about character, I expect and want to be grounded in the POV right off the bat. In other genres setting might trump that, the beauty of the prose might trump that, etc. Sort of the way you expect the first male and female POVs offered in a romance to be those of the hero and heroine (except in books by head-hoppers like Heyer and Nora Roberts; note, I’m PRO head-hopping!).

12:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

All of Heyer is pretty much omniscient. And her POV hops all over the place. We get lovely little spurts of minor characters all the time (I love it!). In fact, I had to train myself not to write that way, LOL!

12:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a good point, Kalen--I think another thing the opening sentences do ideally is establish the type of book you're reading, at least in broad terms. Amanda, do you think a lot about establishing the era when you begin your historical fiction novels or do you focus in on the person's whose life you're telling?

Omnisicient pov works great for moving between povs and bringing in minor characters.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Interesting question, Tracy. Because three of my 4 historical fiction novels are told in first person POV it was important for me to establish something about the heroine right off the bat--her voice, and the way she saw the world. TOO GREAT A LADY opens with Emma Hamilton in debtors prison beginning to pen her memoirs (and explaining why she's doing so), and then we go back in time to her childhood and work our way forward until we've come full circle. The opening line is actually Emma's: "My sin has found me out."

With the Mary Robinson book, ALL FOR LOVE, I begin with her as a little girl and her perception of her father (the first of many men who she loved and who abandoned her) and I set her in the context of her world, also using some of the real Mary's words.

THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY also begins with a brief prologue where Helen ruefully looks back on her life and the first chapter begins with her childhood. Although the story is told in Helen's voice, it was also important for me to set the scene, and give a sense of the world of Bronze Age Greece. Helen is writing her story for her estranged daughter and chapter 1 begins with the words "I knew that I was different when I was a very small girl..."

7:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Amanda! I think your books are a great example of focusing in on the character's pov and yet giving a sense of the world she inhabits.

7:41 PM  

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