MIckey Spillane is quoted as saying ‘the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ Well, something like that—I’ve seen variations in different places (first/last line, first/last sentence, and so on). But the details aren’t important—it’s the idea that counts. The ending of a book should leave us satisfied but eager for more. And the start of the book should pull us in so we can’t not continue.
I’ve read a couple of stories recently where the openings did just that, and I thought I’d share them with you.
The first is from Brandon Sanderson’s novella Snapshot. It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while, so when I dove into it I had no idea what it was about. And I read this:
Anthony Davis—one of only two real people in a city of twenty million—caught the burrito his partner tossed to him. “Which end is the mustard on?” he asked.
I was hooked.
But I also wanted to understand why this worked so well. After all, there’s not a lot going on here—at least, not on the surface. A character called Davis is eating a burrito with his partner. It’s not riveting stuff. It’s ordinary.
But it’s that phrase in the middle—‘one of only two real people in a city of twenty million’—that throws things out of kilter. It gives rise to so many questions—if the other twenty million aren’t real, what are they? Is this some kind of virtual reality thing? If that’s the case, how come Davis and his partner are simply eating burritos? What’s with the mustard? Is this important? And how can Davis be so blase about being one of only two real people?
We want answers. We have to read on.
The next comes from the Mark Leslie short story This Time Around: A Canadian Werewolf Story.
This time I woke to find myself sprawled naked in the grass, my shoulder nestled in a shrub and the coppery aftertaste of blood in my mouth. It was a cool morning, but humid, the unmistakable scent of the Hudson River hanging in the air.
This one didn’t grab me as hard as the opening to Snapshot, but it’s worth spending a moment examining these two sentences.
We know, from the book’s subtitle, that we’re dealing with werewolves here (or at least one werewolf). When I read these sentences I immediately recalled the scene in An American Werewolf In London where the main character wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo, after his first transformation. So it seems likely that the narrator in This Time Around is in a similar predicament.
There’s also the aftertaste of blood in his mouth—he’s fed. But on what? Or who?
Yet there’s something almost comforting in this opening, at odds with the apparent violence beneath the surface. The description of the surroundings is relaxing. Notice the use of the word ‘scent’—not an unpleasant stink, but a neutral smell. And it’s not cold, but cool.
The feel of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story. This isn’t a jump-scare horror, or a gore-fest. It’s the story of one man dealing with his affliction. It poses an initial problem, and hints at what we can expect as we read on.
I’ll turn to another first paragraph, this one from Amanda Carlson’s Danger’s Halo, which does a very good job of setting up the main character and the world.
“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”
It’s intriguing. It throws us directly into the story, yet it still gives us a great deal—not in details, but in impressions. This is a dangerous world—if ‘they’ have no qualms about luring a child to his death, then nobody is safe.
The tone of the passage—and especially the dialogue—says a lot about the main character. She’s tough, not someone who’s likely to show her emotions. She doesn’t plead with the child not to jump, but tells him he won’t survive if he does. Even though he’s young, she leaves the decision to him.
She calls him ‘kid’. That could be dismissive, or simply the way she talks. But the fact that she’s even bothering to talk to him indicates that she cares what happens.
Already, there are depths to this character. She’s clearly got an attitude, but possibly a caring side. And she seems to know the streets, has probably gone through a lot in her life. She’s a survivor.
And we want to learn more. We want to continue reading.
Three very different openings, setting up three very different stories. But in each case the first few sentences did their job admirably—they draw the reader in, settle them into the story, leave them wanting more.