Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

Starters for ten: The importance of the literary opening

This post was originally written for the Spectator Arts Blog


There’s a lot riding on this. And I don’t mean page hits, or the number of comments I manage to generate, or my chances of writing any more pieces for the Spectator. I mean – literally – that there was a lot riding on that first sentence.

Estate agents claim people decide whether to buy a house within 15 seconds of opening the door. I think opening a book is the same, and takes about the same time too. We’re so hard-wired to pick up verbal signals that we make fundamental judgments about what we’re reading long before we hit the end of the first page. In fact, we may not need much more than ten words for starters, at least in some cases.

Sceptical?  Unconvinced? Well how about we try a few experiments. Let’s start with a really easy one.

 “I believe in Britain. It is a great country with a great history. The British people are a great people. But I believe Britain can and must be better…”

 Politician, right?  No-one talks about Britain like that unless they want to control it, and I’m guessing that overlay of ‘I believe’ might be giving you a good idea whose name is written at the end of this. But it’s not just the vocabulary that’s giving him away, it’s the rhetorical flourishes, most notably those classic repetitions in threes which are so characteristic of persuasive prose in all its forms, whether propaganda, sermon, or political manifesto. Which is, of course, exactly what this is. The introduction to the 1997 Labour Party manifesto, to be precise, which could just make this one of the most successful political openings every written…

Next up, how about this?

“London.  Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall.  Implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…”

I’ll declare an interest here – Bleak House is one of my candidates for the best opening of an English novel, and it famously sustains this pitch for half a dozen pages and more. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at how hard these mere two lines or so are already working.  Setting and period are effectively established in two short succinct sentences, but then we hit that one word ‘implacable’ and everything changes. The writing becomes richer, the rhythm more rolling, and when in the sentence that follows, a megalosaurus is magicked from the mud, we know, without any need to read the preface, that this is a book that will dwell upon ‘the romantic side of familiar things’.

And finally (as they say on the news), a piece of news. Or rather a piece of news, and a piece of comment about that news, taken from this very blog, on the morning I’m writing this. So here’s your own personal starter for ten – read these two in tandem, a line at a time. How many words do you need to tell which is which?  My guess is no more than five, and some of you may go as low as three….

“The cash-for-access scandal engulfing David Cameron has inflicted deep damage on the Conservative Party’s standing, according to a ComRes survey for The Independent.”

“Introducing Ed Miliband, Labour’s best hope since Tony Blair. Oh, I’m kidding, of course — but it’s still striking that, this morning, Labour have their biggest lead in a ComRes poll for seven years.”