Few things draw us into story world like a great opening. During the time before printed books were easy to purchase, before we downloaded books with the click of a button, families and groups would gather around the fire and settle down to hear the storyteller. A good storyteller could make the time pass quickly, chase the blues away, and remind listeners about the past so no one forgot it.
There are modern day storytellers who verbally recapture those times of old. You can always tell when a good story is about to begin. Something in the speaker’s tone, their voice, makes you lean forward to catch what’s next.
And so it is with books, or it should be. A good story will pull us in with the first page. For me, that happens in several ways.
As soon as possible, I find someone to root for or sympathize with. One of my favorite openings is with the book “Little Women.”
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say, “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
The first time I read this book, I was about 12 years old. Imagining Christmas without presents? Horrible thought! I was immediately sympathetic for the girls from line one.
Another thing a good opening can give us is a glimpse of character. Who are we dealing with in this book? What are their personalities? Although I didn’t realize it, the first time I read Little Women, I saw a picture of each girl’s character from the first line. Jo, the improper one, lying on the rug. Meg, the lady of the group, who realizes her social status and doesn’t like it. Amy, the one concerned about image and determined to one day improve her station. And constant Beth, always finding the bright side of her situation.
A good opening will give us a sense of time–when are we? What’s going on in our characters’ lives? In the case of this classic book, not only is it Christmas time, but we have a family who’s separated. Father’s away during the Civil War, and they all know what that could mean for them.
A good opening will compel us to care, to read on.
Here’s the opening of a much more recent book, Hearts In Flight, by Patty Smith Hall:
“You’ll never catch a husband if you keep messing with that plane.”
Maggie Daniels bumped her head on the instrument panel, the memory of her mother’s words at the breakfast table faintly ringing in her ears.
The same is true here. Who’s Maggie? Why does she mess with planes? Maggie’s clearly bucking tradition of being occupied with finding a husband first. She’s also a girl whose elders’ words follow her wherever she goes.
In this Love Inspired Historical set during World War II, I saw from the git-go that Maggie’s not your typical Southern belle, and I wanted to read about her.
What’s your favorite opening from a book you’ve read recently? Why did it make you keep reading?