First sentence, first page, first scene's closing hook, first impressions count. They may not govern how our stories or novels or poems are judged overall, but they must surely influence the reader's decision to download, to read, to buy our work so that we can show them what a great story we have to tell.
To that end I decided to look at the top three sellers on the Amazon.com ebook fiction chart and see how the writers used language in their opening pages to hook their readers.
The books here were the top three on the 24th of August, 2016. They were:
1)'The Things We Wish Were True' by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
2)'Interference' by Amélie Antoine, Maren Baudet-Lackner (Translator)
3)'Everything We Keep: A Novel' by Kerry Lonsdale
The first two titles are 'Kindle First' titles. Some people might argue that this means that they are not true bestsellers, but I would argue that in the current context it highlights the importance of impressing the Amazon Editors as well as the broader reading public.
Put simply, the purpose of an opening is to engage the audience into the story and its protagonists as quickly and as deeply as possible. It needs to establish a distinct and credible narrative voice and to provide exposition efficiently, and on top of all that, it should hint at the controlling idea and at the deeper themes of the text as a whole. Oh yeah - and then, after all this i done it needs to excite the readers curiosity, to energise and to make us emote, emote, emote - 'Bloody Hell, Harry!'
All three of this weeks best sellers begin with temporal and / or geographical reference. This creates the effect of an 'establishing shot' in the style of film or TV drama or documentary. The fashion for these kinds of openings perhaps reflect the increasing cross media literacy of modern audiences.
In terms of function these choices have benefits for the author. The use of precise reference to time and place gives an immediate sense of credibility and helps the reader to cross the boundary of believability that so many people feel about fiction.
Secondly, it saves the author the effort of exposition as including exposition of time and place can be cumbersome, and awkward. By using headings, bestselling authors are able to dive straight into the drama of the scene.
The Things We Wish Were True and Interference also use the narrator's name to immediately precede the main body of the prose. This allows the reader to feel that they know the character to some degree before the narrative begins. In Everything We Keep, Lonsdale uses direct speech: “'Here Aimee.' Mom gave me a clean one” to achieve the same effect. Perhaps this is because her audience is more plot focused.
All three texts have female protagonists, and focus the use of proper nouns on a male character. As readers we are focussed quickly on the theme of romantic love. The names of the characters imply outsiders ('Cailey and Cutter' in The Things We Wish Were True), link with faith (Gabriel in Interference) or establish the 'normality' of the characters (Aimee and James in Everything We Keep). In terms of proper nouns The Things We Wish Were True establishes its literary credentials through an early reference to 'Charlotte's Web'.
Starting Sentences with Co-ordinating Conjunctions
With all three texts using first person narrators we expect to feel as if we are being spoken to. And in so many texts, we have become used to sentences beginning with 'And' and 'But'. All three writers use this method of imitating the cadences of speech to create a sense of intimacy between narrator and reader.
The Things We Wish Were True 'But no one wanted to hear that spider's message'
Interference 'But I know he'll be angry this time.'
Everything We Keep 'But instead of walking down the aisle towards my best friend, my first and only love, I was at his funeral.'
Bicolons and Tricolons
Bicolons and tricolons are terms that mean repeated grammatical structures. They are a feature of rhetoric favoured by politicians and advertisers. All three novelists use this feature.
When I read a novel, I like to enjoy the language; I like to feel that I am in safe hands, that my novelist knows what they're doing. Using rhetorical techniques is attractive to us and helps us to emote.
The Things We Wish Were True 'His body was tense, his inner self trying to get over to those boys even as his arms and legs stayed still.'
Interference 'I love how he makes me feel about myself, and I love knowing that he's nothing without me.'
Everything We Keep 'Same church. Same flowers. Wrong wedding'
The texts use sentence structures to reflect their themes and protagonists.
Mayhew Whalen's writing is the most heavily textured of the three texts. She combines the use of sophisticated sentence structures with colloquialisms ('smack-dab' 'superheroes') to create Cailey as a protagonist who is an outsider but who is also clearly an intelligent young woman. It includes a great cumulative sentence too that adds and adds and adds to the theme of the outsider.
The Things We Wish Were True 'Cutter and I stood, the two of us, off to the side, apart from the crowd.'
Amelie Antoine's Interference is the most clearly stylised of the three books. She uses short sentences most of which start with subject pronouns to create a staccato effect, creating a powerful impression of a detached and possibly psychopathic speaker.
Interference 'I feel like I'm in the here and now.'
Though the most traditional in terms writing style, Lonsdale does make use of minor sentences (or fragments to MS Office users). She does this to represent the emotional difficulty that Aimee has when thinking about her deceased love, James.
Everything We Keep 'The little boy I imagined standing between James and me, his small hands linked with ours.'
As you would expect – these three book openings are different! That said it is interesting that all three are using female protagonists and first person narrators and that all three use similar chapter headers.
My favourite sentence: 'Maybe I should be using the past tense' (Interference).