I’ve discussed before the role of narrative voice 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. [Read more…]