This is going to be the most exciting, thrilling and fulfilling newspaper column in American history. Canadian history too. And maybe Belize.
There. How’s that for an opening paragraph that probably would get the attention of most readers? At least until they read further.
I offer this example of a bold “opening” because most people who know anything about writing, especially books, will tell us we have to get the readers’ attention and interest immediately. Otherwise you have a mostly unread book.
So novelists and historians and maybe even scientists and scholars try hard to create a great opening line, paragraph or chapter.
The Bible has a catchy first line: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Here are a few others, no match for the Bible but catchy for sure:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, “1984.”
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick.”
“I was born a poor, black child.” Steve Martin in the movie, “The Jerk.”
Alas, for every great opener there are a zillion clunkers. And perhaps literary agents are among the most qualified observers to judge opening lines of the thousands of book manuscripts that cross their desks, their authors pleading to be published.*
Says agent Laurie McLean: “I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Agent Chip MacGregor doesn’t love adjectives if they’re crowded into an opening such as, “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Agent Dan Lazar dreads openings that start too slowly, such as, “Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking”
Agent Kristin Nelson tackles romance novels, with disdain for ones that open sort of like this: “A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom” and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon, not admiring the view.”
Speaking of looks, physical attractiveness, literary agent Laura Bradford doesn’t like “descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines and heroes who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No flowing, wind-swept golden locks; no eyes as blue as the sky; no willowy, perfect figures.
That complaint struck a minor nerve with me, because I made a major point about the beauty of one woman in the first chapter. Did I go overboard with this excerpt in which a “stunning, black-haired beauty walked into a Buckhead penthouse cocktail party and got everyone’s attention... Her raven hair fell almost to her waist, brushing her body as she moved. Her Amerasian eyes and ivory skin were magnets to men and women alike.”
Too much? If you’ve read our book, “Deadly News,” let me know what you think. If you have not read it yet, give it a shot and share your critique with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
*These examples and comments are from a Chuck Sambuchino column, with excerpts from the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.