[Previously published on Facebook 2015-12-14.] It was a dark and stormy night, and the hailstones came down like a fistful of clichés flung by a thunder-god. Yes, dear writer, the start of a novel is a perilous place. What path will you take? Choose wisely or suffer the dread curse from the reader. Will you take the scenic route that meanders like a lazy river through the lowland plains, the sunlight glinting off its ripples? The narrator, a tour guide. On your left, there’s the protagonist. Do you see that baggage she’s carrying? All her emotional and relationship issues and back story will be explained in full detail later, but, since we have all the time in the world and a patient reader, let’s have a summary now. Over there on your right, there’s the protagonist’s best friend. At various times, the friend will listen to an account of the plot so far and ponder over possible actions. Alas, this isn’t a read-your-own-adventure, and the reader won’t be able to select the quick option to terminate the story. Yonder, is the ditzy character with a goldfish-memory and head stuck so firmly in the clouds that all the other characters have to say, “Honestly, don’t you know that! Everyone knows that 〈insert info dump〉.” Ahead, we have the 〈insert minority group〉 characters, who will immediately use stock phrases and actions so that the reader can easily identify them as 〈insert minority group〉 and be reassured straight away that this is an inclusive novel, without the awful suspense of having to get to know them as the story progresses.
But what of the other route? The short cut that takes the readers by the scruff of the neck and throws them into the thick of it (in medias res, if you prefer the technical term). Let the reader find out for themselves what the characters are like by seeing how they deal with events. Add a dash of detail that sparks that amazing — and often forgotten gift — the reader’s imagination. Writing a murder mystery? Before the end of the first chapter I want to find either a corpse or someone whose enemy count is incrementing faster than a travelling salesman’s odometer.
Sadly, it’s easier to parody bad prose than it is to write a cracking great first sentence. I’m still searching for that elusive gem to adorn my work in progress. I hope that one day I’ll find it.