Friday, August 8, 2008

Openings Past and Present

I’m late posting today, partly because of getting caught up in that life thing and letting Friday sneak up on me, and partly because I got caught up in the research instead of the writing.

My plan for today, is to compare the openings of classic novels to those written today. I thought it would be interesting to look at the differences. I’d never really looked at just opening lines of classic novels before, and it was very interesting.

From Wuthering Heights:
I have just returned from a visit to my landlord--the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country!

An exclamation point! Today that would be edited out (if the work were accepted at all). Not the reach out and grab ‘em opening readers are looking for in the twenty-first century.

From Dracula:

3 May. Bistritz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M, on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible.

Wow, that was exciting. Not! Interesting that a book with that many chills and scares has such a bland beginning.

From Frankenstein:

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

A bit better, but still not something a modern reader would likely continue to read.

From A Study in Scarlet:
In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

So begins the first Sherlock Holmes novel. Not a reach out and grab you kind of beginning, but the rest of the book makes up for it (at least in my opinion). Still, if Arthur Conan Doyle were writing in 2008, he might have a hard time of it.

Pretty much everybody knows the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but check out the second:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

A little long winded? Making up for that short first sentence, I suppose.

Then there is the attention grabbing Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

I think Mr. Dickens might be able to find a publisher even today.

So, how do these openings stack up to today’s? Let’s see. I grabbed four books and copied the openings. let’s see what we think.

First up is Kerrelyn Sparks and Be Still My Vampire Heart:

After four hundred and ninety-three years of teleporting from one place to another, Angus MacKay still felt an urge to peek under his kilt to ensure everything had arrived in fine working condition.

I love this opening, and this is a character quirk that carries on throughout the novel—one that makes the hero somehow adorable—in spite of the fact that he’s a fearless warrior.

Then there’s Vicki Lewis Thompson’s Nerds Like It Hot:

"Gillian, Darling, It's Cora. Four out of five women surveyed say that nerds are amazing in bed. You simply must go on this cruise wiht me. Kiss, kiss."

Not your average opening, but Vicki Lewis Thompson isn’t your usual author. A series about nerds? Not only did she manage to sell it, she’s using the nerd thing to brand herself. Fearless. And it’s paying off big for her. Of course, the fact that the books are excellent doesn’t hurt!

Next up is Lori Foster and Murphy's Law:

Trailing close behind in the rested, rattling junk heap of a car, he watched her, plotting, planning...growing tense and hard and excited.

Opening with the villain. Interesting. And it works.

Last, and shortest, is Julie Kenner’s The Givenchy Code:

This was not my day.

Wow! It’s my life in a sentence (also paragraph, by the way). I haven’t read this book yet, but if it’s anything like her soccer mom slayer books it’ll be awesome.

Hopefully you learned something, were inspired, or got a chuckle. If not, grab some books off your shelf and read the first lines. It’s a very interesting study. In fact, if you aren’t careful you can get caught up and be late. Or is that just me?

Have a wonderful weekend everybody!


  1. Great post Cheryel! I'm so glad you included A Christmas Carol. His opening is good, but if you keep reading in the first chapter? Oy. I LOVE this story but the last time I read it I was wondering what voice he was using and why he spent so much time describing the London fog. How writing and readers' attention spans have changed!


  2. Oh, now I have to read Spark's BE STILL MY VAMPIRE HEART. That opening was just priceless!

    And I have to agree, Dicken's A CHRISTMAS CAROL has withstood the test of time. It's still got a great opener.