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Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter, by Simon Brett

September 18, 2013

Opening Lines

In upscale restaurants these days, it’s become customary for dinner to begin with an “amuse bouche,” a little tidbit – unordered and free of charge – that acts like a shorthand description of the meal to come. “This,” says your shot-glass of truffled cauliflower bisque, or your thumb-sized Reuben sandwich, or your spoonful of yellowtail tartare, “is the kind of culinary country you’ll be exploring tonight.”

The moniker may be relatively new, but the concept isn’t: When I was a kid, a certain kind of restaurant greeted every diner with a “relish tray” on a segmented platter – cottage cheese, canned black olives, melba toast (typically still in its wrapper, factory-fresh), and one long edge given over to iced carrot-and-celery sticks. This platter, too, made a promise about dinner (“Relax,” said the relish tray: “There won’t be anything unusual, imaginative, or highly seasoned.”)

I really like the structure that this kind of beginning provides. It establishes the parameters, lets me know – among other things – how much attention I should plan to pay to my food. Additionally, it offers a kind of comfort, a guarantee that someone here has crafted an experience for me, meaning I can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Opening sentences can operate, I think, in much the same way.  “Can,” because an awful lot of writers use that first sentence as nothing more than – mixing metaphors horrendously here – an on-ramp to the story-line, without any scenic interest of its own. For a writer who’d like to sell books, that’s a major mistake: The opening line is the only opportunity the writer has to persuade readers to hand over folding money in exchange for the chance to read her deathless prose.  (The other persuaders, like the cover and the blurb on the back or the flap copy, come from the publisher.) Speaking as a professional bookseller, I can tell you that readers come into a store, pick up a book with an appealing cover, and read the flap or the back. If the story sounds interesting, they open the book, and read the first sentence. If that grabs them, maybe they’ll buy it. But if they’re not grabbed, there isn’t a chance in hell.

So what makes for a “grabby” first sentence? “Call me Ishmael” has stood the test of time. Ditto “It is a truth universally acknowledged….”  But that’s Literature; how about in the world of popular fiction?

At the bookstore, I sold a ton of copies of a book called Don’t Say a Word, by Andrew Klavan. This was years before Hollywood turned it into a crummy movie, and I sold them the same way every time: I asked customers to read the first sentence. And every single person who read that sentence bought the book. Now, to be fair, I only offered up that sentence when I knew there was a pretty good match between the customer’s tastes and what the book had to offer. (After all, you wouldn’t give that mini-Reuben sandwich to a vegan. ) But if the match was there, that one sentence was good enough to seal the deal:

The right apartment was difficult to find, so they murdered the old lady.

See what I mean? That sentence tells you instantly whether this is the book for you. And the same is true of the first sentence from my beloved Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter, the kick-off to Simon Brett’s irresistibly silly send-up of 1920s sleuthing:

‘It’s frightfully awkward, Mater, but I’m afraid there’s a dead body in the library.’

And just to wrap things up, I’m offering a gold star to the first reader who can correctly identify the book – and yes, it’s sort of a mystery – that follows from this lovely first line:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

No Googling, no cheating, and while you’re at it, what are your favorite first lines?

 

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