opening a book

How do you write a great novel opening? This post will explore both subversion and suspense as two linked methods that toy with reader expectation.

‘You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.’

So begins Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. And you can tell a whole lot about the book from that opening fraction.

Firstly, there’s an order being subverted in the text. Rather than storytellers creating important life-lessons out of events, events must be confined and shaped to suit important life-lessons, which prove useless anyway — so says the narrator.

Secondly, the imagery is funny and disturbing: just try to read the above without ‘seeing’ a chef looking under kitchen cupboards and sinks for his tongue.

Thirdly, by starting with the idea of stories about loss, Toltz gives the impression his narrator will lose something important — but what?

Openings give a lot away about a book; or they should. Toltz’s opening, despite being basically metaphysical (concerned with stories), uses shifted logic and comic imagery to subvert expectation, meanwhile building suspense around the notion of loss, so the result lives in the mind and tantalises the reader to read onward.

Well — it tantalised me. You  may prefer a different style of narrative:

‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

Do I need to say where that’s from? Of course it’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

There’s no twist in that opening — not an overt one, at any rate. But the book’s title tells us Harry Potter will be a core character, so in reading the first words we’re already left hanging: ‘Where’s Harry?’ Secondly, as readers we know that two self-described ‘normal’ characters living on a street named after a common hedging plant are highly unlikely to remain in the realm of ‘normal’. Since they don’t know this, we can enjoy a sense of irony.

As readers we know there’s a big change coming. And it might just shake them to the core. But Rowling doesn’t let us in on the secret for quite a while. Indeed it’s not until the third paragraph that she lets us know these two ‘normal’ characters have a secret of their own, the nature of which won’t be revealed for a few more paragraphs.

As unremarkable as the story’s first line is, it also sets up the brilliance of a writer who knows how to delay ‘the reveal’. This is the moment when the hat is removed, and we see the white rabbit underneath. Or, as it happens, the owl.

These two very different openings to two very different books show some ways in which expectation can be subverted.

With Toltz it’s the nature of universal ‘truths’ pertaining to story, and also the expectation that outcomes will supply grand meaning a reader can take away and apply elsewhere.

With Rowling it’s the moment of ‘reveal’, being twofold: the nature of this world’s ‘abnormality’ (witchcraft); and the anticipated change in the Dursleys’ demeanour when they finally understand what’s happening.

But in both openings, it’s the subversion of expectation that keeps us wanting to read.