First Lines: Raising Questions

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pick up ten of your favorite books and read their opening paragraphs. What do they use to capture your attention? I’m guessing that most of them ask questions that interest you enough to keep reading. Sometimes this approach stands alone, and at other times it is combined with one of the other types of opening. When we were talking about introducing intriguing characters, I used this first line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Part of the reason Eustace is an intriguing character is because of the question this sentence causes us to ask—what kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb?

So what are some other examples? My May 8, 2017 blog post quoted the opening paragraphs from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and noted that they raised a simple question: why is it so important that Marley was dead?

Then there is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which begins with this concise, one-sentence paragraph:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

What family or families is he talking about, and how is its or their unhappiness unique? Those questions are the hook that keeps you reading.

Or here’s a third example, taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

This opening raises two questions:

1.     What is a hobbit?

2.     How can a hole in the ground be comfortable?

Our interest is peaked, and we read on to find the answers.

Maybe the question-raising opening is the most common because it is the easiest to write. Or is it? It takes effort to avoid the natural pitfalls.

In my experience as a reader, openings that raise questions often ramble. That works if the tangents are both interesting and purposeful, as in A Christmas Carol. But many rambling openings are simply tedious and the questions get lost in the verbiage. I put those books down.

Openings that raise questions can also be vague. Most good openings identify characters and settings within the first page or two. When they don’t, readers may be discouraged from reading on.

Finally, some writers are so intent on raising questions that they set a tone that doesn’t match the rest of the novel. This is deceptive and unfair to the reader.

I’ll conclude this series next week by looking at the last type of opening line: telling the whole story.

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