Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

If readers don’t stick with you past your opening lines then the rest is irrelevant. Everwalker wrote a great piece about this, and I recommend that you check it out. Based on an idea from Scott Bell, her approach is to start with the character and a sense of forward motion.

American Gods

To take an example from Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary American Gods:

‘Shadow had done three years in prison.’

In those seven words we have the character, we know something about him, and we get the sense that things are changing – he ‘had done’ three years in prison, and now presumably he’s coming out. Things are changing.

American Gods

Gaiman’s opening also raises lots of questions. Why was Shadow in prison? What will he do once he gets out? What sort of person has a name like Shadow? It gets you on the hook and reels you in towards the rest of the story.

Neuromancer

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, well-read reader that you are. ‘What about Neuromancer by William Gibson, possibly the most famous opening line in science fiction? That doesn’t have character or forward motion. You’re a fool Knighton, a fool and a fraud!’

And it sure looks like you have a point:

‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

But even Gibson, having delivered that killer line, then cuts to character and motion:

‘ ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat.’

Voila, character and motion, Case in conflict with the crowd as he tries to get somewhere. And the following lines tie character and setting together, showing what sort of place Case spends his time in and how he perceives it. That opening line might not directly introduce Case, but it does tell us something about his world and the way he sees it, and this is a story that’s a lot about exposing that world to us through Case.

More like guidelines

‘Rules are there so that you think before you break them.’ – Terry Pratchett

Any guideline needs to be treated with some flexibility. Gibson achieves the same thing as Gaiman, he just waits for the second sentence. But he also varies it – his story is about taking us into a completely different world, and it needs to sell that difference from the start. Gibson’s selling us alienation, Gaiman the brutal truth of a man looking to move on from his past.

What are your favourite opening lines, both that you’ve read and that you’ve written? What do they give the reader to keep them reading? Share them below, lets see how well this rule holds.

‘One reviewer didn’t even talk about the plot, just about how the book made him feel.’ – Neil Gaiman

It’s a funny thing about novels – a huge part of the experience is how they make you feel, but we’ll often discuss our thoughts on them rather than our feelings.

The Neil Gaiman quote above comes from a Q&A session. What’s interesting to me is that, even to Gaiman, that review stood out. We’re used to reviewers talking about structure, about descriptive skill, about plot. But how often do they mention the many different emotions the book evoked? Yet that’s what many people will read the book for.

It’s often the same when we talk about our favourite characters. If I’m discussing Game of Thrones with my brother (it comes up at least once per conversation) we’ll talk about the things characters did – Tyrion said something funny, a Stark did something noble but stupid again. We’ll talk about theories on where the characters are heading (what GoT fan hasn’t discussed Jon Snow’s lineage?). But have I ever said out loud that Petyr Baelish fills me with queasy unease and guilty admiration? That my 95% rage at Joffrey is tempered by 5% pity at his messy upbringing? That my pride in seeing Arya grow up is mingled with real worry at what sort of person she’ll become?

queasy admiration all the way

These are feelings the author has set out to inspire, and yet when we analyse a book we’ll often ignore them. Perhaps that’s just a matter of habit, born of education and reading others’ reviews. Perhaps it’s because our feelings are subjective, and so it’s harder to argue our case. Perhaps it’s because they’re not entirely consistent, and admitting our own inconsistencies is a difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to admit they feel a little sorry for Joffrey, when he spends his whole time being so awful?

Joffrey

Next time you’re discussing a book, take the time to feel as well as to think. To poke around in ugly emotions. Maybe step back into thoughts again and work out why. I started when I read that Gaiman quote all of twenty minutes ago, and I’m already interested in the results.

Now I’m off to watch some Game of Thrones. I’m feeling the need to go hate Petyr Bealish. It’s just so satisfying.