How to hook them from the start

Novelists agonise over it. As Booker authors reach for the prize, Blake Morrison examines the art of the intro
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The Independent Culture
Whatever the outcome of this year's Booker Prize, it won't be the heavyweight contest of 1980, when the prolific Anthony Burgess took on the austere William Golding and lost. Burgess's only consolation was in winning a smaller and less official contest, that for Best First Sentence. For whereas Golding's Rites of Passage starts fairly drably - "Honoured godfather, with those words I begin this journal ..." - Burgess's Earthly Powers is a triumph: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Beginnings matter. They always have. Middles have no limits - they can scrunch up or they can sprawl. Endings may be left open, ambiguous, incomplete. But no novel has ever not begun. And if it doesn't begin right, the suspicion is that the rest of it won't be right either. Gabriel Garca Mrquez has said that he sometimes spends months on a first paragraph, since it's there that the theme, style and tone of a book are defined - solve that and the rest comes easily.

In an age of multiple choice and short attention spans, beginnings are more crucial than ever. To prevent readers drifting off, an author has to hook them quickly. As the novelist Brian Moore once put it, once you've read 20 or 30 pages by a writer, and want to continue, "you are in his sea and swimming in that sea": he can write quite badly after that, and you'll stick with him. Nowadays, as consumers grow more demanding and Booker judges become harder pressed, the impact has to be made even sooner - in the opening chapter, the initial paragraph, even the very first sentence.

I've been thinking about this lately, having struggled for some time to get started on a novel, by which I mean past the first sentence. If I could, I'd emulate Tristram Shandy, a book that begins with a 145-word sentence, which may sound like a lot of words to squeeze between a capital and a full stop, but is still not sufficient for the loquacious narrator to accommodate all the information he hopes to get in, the opening sentence of a novel being, as Mrquez rightly says, an encapsulation of the narrative that follows (the acorn from which the oak-tree grows), as well a portrait in miniature of one or more of the central characters, not to mention a demarcation of the tone, idiom and subject matter of the tale - the only risk being that an over-stuffed sentence will lose readers rather than lasso them. I like long sentences: Thomas Pynchon has a great one heading up The Crying of Lot 49. But then again, no. I'm not of the Henry James school. Short are fine by me too. Even without verbs if need be. The first two sentences of Gunter Grass's Dog Years go: "You tell. No, you." I approve.

Long or short, rambling or spare - there are no rules as to what an opening sentence should be. The conventional wisdom that a great novel has to sparkle with life from the off is disproved by Samuel Beckett, whose Malone Dies begins, "I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all", and whose Murphy is bleaker still: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." But perhaps these are deviations that prove the guidelines. For a survey of past and present practice does suggest certain common strategies for beginning a novel:

The Plunge Horace in Ars Poetica talks of the desirability of hurrying readers into the middle of things - in medias res - as though they knew the story already. Graham Greene does this in Brighton Rock: "Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours." Other novelists begin mid-conversation, like Dickens with Gradgrind in Hard Times: "Now, what I want is, Facts." David Storey kicks off This Sporting Life mid-scrum: "I had my head to Mellor's backside, waiting for the ball to come between his legs."

The Shocker Kafka's Metamorphosis is the prime example: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Will Self pays homage to Kafka in the second of the two novellas that comprise his terrific Cock & Bull: "Bull, a large and heavyset young man, awoke one morning to find that while he had slept he had acquired another primary sexual characteristic: to whit, a vagina."

The Intriguing Narrator "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me," begins Saul Bellow's Herzog, immediately engaging us with the hero, who, if that's his attitide, we feel we're going to like. Gunter Grass does something similar, if more extreme, in The Tin Drum: "Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight ..." F Scott Fitzgerald takes the opposite tack in The Great Gatsby, of course, allowing the colourless Nick Carraway to lead us through events.

The Epigram See Austen and Tolstoy below. But second-division novelists have also been known to come up with something memorable. All that people remember of LP Hartley's The Go-Between, apart from the film version with Alan Bates and Julie Christie, is its first line: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This should perhaps serve as a warning: if a first sentence is too good, everything that follows will be a disappointment.

The Promise "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," begins Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, inviting us to be moved too. The promise that the events about to be recounted truly took place - the avowal of authenticity - has been a common device since the 18th century. A recent example is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: "All this happened, more or less."

The Omen If you are going to make a book end badly, said Robert Louis Stevenson, it must end badly from the beginning. John Updike, in Rabbit at Rest, actually uses the word "ominous" in an opener that hints very heavily how the book will conclude: "Standing amid the tan, excited post- Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what's floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death."

The particulars Some novelists write as if they were reporters on the old Sunday Times Insight team, bedding their story down in straws of meticulous detail. Bruce Chatwin (who did indeed work for the Sunday Times) begins his novel Utz thus: "An hour before dawn on March 7th 1974, Kaspar Joachim Utz died of a second and long-expected stroke, in his apartment at no 5 Siroka Street, overlooking the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague." Many 19th-century novels do the same.

The self-referral Some narrators feel self-conscious about the act of storytelling. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines: "It is a curious thing that at my age - 55 last birthday - I should find myself taking up a pen ..." Holden Caulfield in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is awkward too: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is wherre I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like..." The most self-conscious beginning ever is perhaps Italo Calvino's If on winter's night a traveller: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveller."

There it is: plenty of strategies to choose from. To the narrator of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair it can't help but be a random business: "arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." Perhaps all that counts is that readers feel confident that the author knows what he or she is doing, and has taken pains to get it right. But even then the prizes may prove elusive. Jane Rogers's new novel Island begins: "When I was 28 I decided to kill my mother." Pretty striking. But she's not on the Booker shortlist. Of those that are, JM Coetzee's opener looks the most stylish, Ahdaf Soueif's the most mysterious, Michael Frayn's the most deadpan. None, thankfully, is as bad as the start of Orwell's Coming Up for Air: "The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth."

VERANDAS, BEDROOMS, DISCOVERIES

OPENING SENTENCES FROM THIS YEAR'S BOOKER SHORTLIST:

I know nothing of the house I was born in.

('Our Fathers' by Andrew O'Hagan, Faber, pounds 16.99)

Helen woke in the night to the sound of Manus whimpering.

('The Blackwater Lightship' by Colm Tibn, Picador, pounds 15)

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

('Disgrace' by J M Coetzee, Secker, pounds 14.99)

On the veranda overlooking the garden, the drive and the gate, they sit together on the creaking sofa-swing, suspended from its iron frame, dangling their legs so that the slippers on their feet hang loose.

('Fasting, Feasting' by Anita Desai, Chatto, pounds 14.99)

- and there, on the table under her bedroom window, lies the voice that has set her dreaming again.

('The Map of Love' by Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99)

I have a discovery to report.

('Headlong' by Michael Frayn, Faber, pounds 16.99)

SIX OTHER OPENING SENTENCES TO ASPIRE TO:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of wife.

('Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen)

All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

('Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy)

All children, except one, grow up.

('Peter Pan' by JM Barrie)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

('One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garca Mrquez)

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.

('The Trial' by Franz Kafka)

For a long time I used to go to bed early.

('A la recherche du temps perdu' by Marcel Proust)

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