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The First Five Lines

I’ve discussed before the role of narrative voice [1] in pulling us into the dream state into which we fall when we read.  The more I study it, though, the more convinced I am that the effect of narrative voice begins—or not—immediately.  Narrative voice can lull us into the dream state within a novel’s first five lines.  Dialogue and media res openings are not incorrect, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that when opening in those colder modes it takes longer to warmly lull readers into a story.

So, what are the elements that work such magic in a mere five lines?  There are only two elements that matter and we can see them at work in the most durable and eternal of all openings:

Once upon a time, in a land far, far way…

Needless to say, that opening transports us back to childhood bedtimes and the wondrous fairy tales that followed.  The soothing sound of our parents’ voices is as secure a safety zone as we probably have ever felt.  However, let’s look a little more closely.  The first clause of that phrase is richly sonorous.  Say it out loud.  It’s heavy with vowels.  In the second clause, the repetition of the word “far” establishes a rhythmic pattern, a slow…tick…tock…that is almost hypnotic.

Thus, the first crucial element is language alone.  When the words themselves soothe, seduce, delight or enchant us with their sound and rhetorical patterns, we are halfway to dreaming.  The second element lies in the promise that we are about to journey to somewhere magical.  By that, I do not mean settings that are strictly fantastic or fairy tale-like; I mean settings which are places where extraordinary things can happen.

Brute realism is okay, naturally, and there is nothing illegal about making a fictional place believable.  However, it’s difficult to quickly put readers into a dream state when they are clobbered by a harsh and documentary immediacy.

Let’s take a look at how these two elements are at work in some actual openings.

Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) is bound to be a novel in which extraordinary things occur.  Hey, it’s Neil Gaiman.  Have a look, though.  Gaiman opens his novel with something that feels as much like an immigrant saga as a fantastic tale:

It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm.  I wasn’t very big. 

Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly.  She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.

Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country.  She said she could remember the really old country.

She said the really old country had blown up.

Well, okay, that’s more than five lines, but not much more.  First note the language: simple, sonorous, rhythmic.  Notice the assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.  Ocean…old country…a long time ago …  The sound of “o” predominates.  The words “old country” repeat, as well.  Also at work also is the Rule of Three, as in Lettie…her mother…her grandmother.  One, two, three.  Bing, bang, boom.  Ready, set, go!  Three is a powerful pattern.

Then, of course, there is the promise of a story that will not be your normal, everyday kind of anecdote.  Duck pond?  Ocean?  Old country?  Really old country?  Blown up?  Ooooo-kay.  We’re not in Kansas, Toto.  Not exactly.

Now, what about novels that don’t have anything overtly magical about them?  Jojo Moyes’s monster hit Me Before You (2012) is realistic, and romantic, women’s fiction.  Even so, the novel’s opening uses the elements of language and nascent adventure to get us quickly dreaming.

When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.  She is wearing one of his T-shirts, and her long hair is tousled in a way that prompts reflexive throughs of the previous night.  He stands there, enjoying his brief flashback, rubbing the water from his hair with a towel.

She looks up from a brochure and pouts.  She is probably slightly too old to pout, but they’ve been going out a short enough time for it still to be cute.

“Do we really have to do something that involves trekking up mountains, or hanging over ravines?”

Moyes chooses her words with care.  Propped up against the pillows….travel brochures that were beside his bed.  Notice the alliteration using the letters “p” and “b”?  Her hair is not messy but “tousled”.  The opening setting is carefully chosen, too.  A man’s bedroom.  Stories about princesses often involve beds, have you noticed?  The sexual subtext, here, isn’t even hidden.  She’s wearing one of his T-shirts.  You get the idea.  Moyes is seducing us with seduction.

Now, do you get the feeling that something extraordinary is going to happen?  Of course.  There are travel brochures.  The man—how typical—is thinking of trekking up mountains or hanging over ravines.  That is not her idea of a good time.  Nevertheless, the idea has been set in our minds.  He, at least, is embarking on a journey…just not one (if you have read Me Before You) of the kind that you find in brochures.

Okay, so what about crime fiction, thrillers and other types of gritty, real-world fiction?  Surely those types of novels don’t need poetic language and magical evocations, right?  Maybe just the opposite?  Have a look at the opening of Laura Lippman’s tough-as-nails stand-alone novel After I’m Gone (2014), which begins on the evening of July 4, 1976, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the United States:

They left at dusk, about an hour before the fireworks were scheduled, and by the time they were at the old toll bridge over the Susquehanna, Felix could see glimmers of light through the one tiny window, little celebrations everywhere.  He had told Julie to take the old way to Philadelphia, up Route 40.  He was being cautious, yet nostalgic, too.  He had gotten his start out here, taking action in the bars.

He sneezed.  There was hay on the floor and a horse blanket.  If they got pulled over, he would arrange the blanket over himself and hope for the best.  He had started to do just that when the truck slowed about an hour into the trip, then realized that it was the toll on the bridge across the Susquehanna.  Bert and Tubby had said they should put a horse in the trailer because then no one would bother to look inside, but he wasn’t going to crouch in a corner for the hundred-mile trip, trying to avoid hooves and shit.

Glimmers of light…Little celebrations everywhere.  What’s your judgment of the language in this passage: gritty or poetic?  I vote for both.  The passage is about a crook on the lamb, blowing out of Baltimore hiding in a horse trailer.  It could have been played for gritty realism, but Lippman sets the scene on the evening of the 4th of July.  A criminal escaping imprisonment or worse…a country celebrating freedom…get it?  The opening embraces a captivating—almost magical—juxtaposition of two big ideas.

The road also is “the old way to Philadelphia”, and takes them across “the old toll bridge across the Susquehanna”.  Not just a bridge, but a toll bridge?  Does it get more fairy tale than that?  We almost expect a troll to pop up from under the bridge and demand the answer to a riddle.  The two named characters in this passage not Alan and Steven, but “Burt” and “Tubby”.  Noir names.  Adventure is written all over this opening.

Pull some novels off your shelves.  Have a look at their openings, specifically their first five lines.  There are many approaches to employ, but which ones most quickly put you under the spell of the story?  No matter what type of novel you’re looking at, if you are immediately falling into the dream state then I have a strong suspicion that those openings use both magical language and a palpable promise of adventure.

What about your WIP?  Want to try out your first five lines?  Give us a look!

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].