Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Openings lines that MAKE you turn the page!

Take a look at two striking openings, to start with:

'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'
- The opening of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.

'The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle - a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man's shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it.'

- The opening of Enduring Love, Ian McEwan

Neither of these novels would be described as ‘crime novels’, but they have the essence that a crime thriller (or mystery/suspense) needs – a hook to pull the reader in.  

Don’t all books need a punchy opening? 

Absolutely. Every book needs to dangle a carrot of intrigue, something that makes you want to read on. In crime fiction, however, I think the hook is more likely to contain an obvious mysterious element, jeopardy or a sense that ‘all is not right’. Suspense is created when questions are raised, sometimes right at the start, and answers delayed, usually having to do with causality (whodunnit) and temporality (what happens next?).
McEwan’s book is, in fact, a chilling page-turner written in beautiful prose, with themes of death, obsession, love and psychological disturbance – so although his publisher classifies him under ‘contemporary fiction’, this novel ticks other boxes too.

Anne Tyler, who writes deliciously descriptive novels is certainly not a crime writer, however. Her genre is also contemporary fiction, largely with themes of family relationships and dysfunction. She opens her book, Back when we were grownups opens with:

'Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.'

This draws us in for certain – we want to know what happened to this woman - but we know that the book is going to be about a 'life journey', the twists, turns and mistakes made by a woman in her later years – not (gauging from the title too), a suspense novel!

How are Mysteries/Suspense novels different?

The first novel by Nicci French, The Memory Game, published in 1997, opens with the lines:

'I close my eyes. It’s all there, inside my skull. Mist following the contours of the lawn. A shock of cold stinging in my nostrils. I have to make a conscious effort if I want to remember what else happened on the day we found the body; her body. The reek of wet, brown leaves.'

It's a 'classic' opening to a crime novel/psychological thriller, oozing fear, dread, an unpleasant atmosphere (mist, cold) and a bad memory, brought to life by the involvement of the senses – and that essential ingredient – a dead body! Delivered in short punchy sentences, the author conveys anxiety and the promise of revelations about what terrible event took place. Questions arise for the reader immediately. How did the woman die? Who is she? Does the narrator know who killed her? (the addition of ‘her body’ implies a hint at familiarity). All this within three lines. Powerful!

This opening, from Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer, sends shivers down my spine:

'Dying is not as easy as it looks in the movies.'

And this one, from Point of Rescue, by Sophie Hannah:

'Or Your family. The last three words are yelled, not spoken.'

What openings to mystery/suspense novels do you admire?

PS Point of Interest - My Blogger spell-check changes 'dystopian novel' to 'dustpan novel' - nice one! :)
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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