x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Instant Expert: for great novel openers, try these

The Instant Expert marvels at some great opening lines and hails the novelist's craft at immediately engaging the reader.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur marvels at powerful opening lines to novels and praises how the writers engage the readers

THE BELL JAR It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, 1963. Sets the time and place and establishes a narrator in emotional turmoil.

BRIGHTON ROCK Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. - Graham Greene, 1938. Sinister and powerful intrigue. There's drama ahead.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE 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 to know the truth. - JD Salinger, 1951. An authentic rebellious voice makes an immediate connection.

THE GREAT GATSBY In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. - F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925. What has made the narrator older and less vulnerable, and what was the advice? You're hooked.

1984 It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. - George Orwell, 1949. Thirteen? Whoa. What alternate universe are we in here? You simply must find out.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. - Ernest Hemingway, 1952. Ah-ha. He's going to catch a whopper on the 85th day, isn't he?

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. - John Irving, 1989. Layer upon layer demanding explanation.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, 1813. You can't wait to meet one such man and spy on his search.

THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. - Stephen Crane, 1895. Battle surely looms, and perhaps occurred already, too.

THE STRANGER Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. - Albert Camus, 1942. What are the circumstances that make the narrator unsure? You can almost sense his existential crisis - and his anomie.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. - Charles Dickens, 1859. It was? Why? (And such euphonious parallel construction!)


The worst start to a novel ever

"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." - Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton at the beginning of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford

These ghastly tone-deaf lines have long been cited as a guide to how not to write. They "tell" instead of "show", and provide a textbook example of the florid "purple prose" so intrinsic to fiction of the era.

Their infamy is such that the tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is run annually by the English Department of San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Entrants are invited "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels" - that is, deliberately bad.

Among much homage in literature and media is that in the Peanuts comic strip by the late Charles M Schulz. His character Snoopy used the "dark and stormy night" phrase to start many a novel.