A Beginning Style Ended


Andrew Carnegie who funded libraries much frequented by me in my youth. (Image: Project Gutenberg)

Here follows the opening paragraph of a novel:

The day was hot. An August sun, with the sky to itself and its zenith passed, loitered lazily along its timeless tract towards the towering contours of the Cromdale Hills, already purple with heather, their feet in the hurrying waters of the River Carglas, new-born in the shrinking snows of Ben Macdhui.

From that sample, what genre would you say it belongs to?  What is the target audience? Would it stand any chance of success with a publisher?  Would you class that ‘The day was hot’ with the famous Snoopy ‘It was a dark and stormy night’?

In these times one is constantly told that the opening paragraph of a story is vital in grabbing the attention of the reader.  One is urged to produce something like:

Nick Dashing swung his automatic rifle in a semicircle and mowed down twenty charging dervishes. With her back to his, Marvella Fearless despatched another twenty-five in her sector.  Both scanned the area for any further movement. Then they turned face-to-face, and kissed passionately while ripping one another’s clothes off.

Do you think that sort of opening does work better?

Anyway, back to the extract. It comes from a book published in 1948 and sold for two shillings and sixpence.  The title is Gimlet’s Oriental Quest, and it was written by the then famous ‘Biggles’ author Captain (sic) W.E. Johns.  Target readers were young boys.  This was the sort of children’s adventure I grew up on, and I had no difficulty in having my interest stirred by that first paragraph or, indeed, by a whole opening chapter which describes little more than a failed attempt at fishing and the witnessing of a man being pursued by two others.

From my observations of modern youth, they would be unlikely to read it beyond the first two lines.  Is that the fault of overstimulation from other sources, or is it a symptom of the latest couple of generations becoming increasingly lazy readers? Or is it that the system is producing semi-illiterates with the attention spans of gnats?

What are your thoughts?

© Colonialist (WordPress) November 2015

16 thoughts on “A Beginning Style Ended

  1. disperser

    Not sure about others, but I seldom even pick up a book, let alone read the opening, without already having some idea of the genre and style.

    I can’t recall ever reading the opening lines of a book when deciding on buying it. I am more apt to open it at random and read a few paragraphs. Even that is rare. Normally, I read the jacket and that’s it.

    Todays’ kids do have a different expectation, but they also have greater access to word-of-mouth (Facebook, Twitter, and other social media) that alerts them to things they might like. Also, I could be wrong, but I think parents used to be more involved in what books their kids have access to. Might have you read those books if your choices were as varied as they are today?

    The bottom line for me is having kids read. What they read almost does not matter (within reason). It can be trash as far as literary wisdom goes, but if they are reading, they are exercising their imagination and expanding their horizons.


    1. colonialist Post author

      A lot in what you say. However, quite a few people do dip into the first page (particularly sampling on Amazon) and this is where an opening like the first one would go awry.


    2. disperser

      Writers Unboxed often have posts where the first page of a novel is posted, and readers are asked to decide if they would buy it or not. Many of what are considered literary masterpieces are surprisingly bad at openings.

      I think name recognition also plays a part. One is more likely to keep reading if one knows the author by reputation. I am pretty sure the same opening paragraph with my name on it would be treated very differently than if the name beside it was John Scalzi or Jim Butcher.

      Hence why I mentioned social media as being so important. These days, expectations are formed outside the actual written page.

      As for people reading the opening paragraph, I don’t have numbers on that. If you say a lot of people do it and base their judgment on it, I’ll take your word for it.

      However, to me that seems a bit like looking at ingredients and deciding whatever a chef might make is not for you. Always true if one of the ingredients is broccoli, but not everything is made with broccoli.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. anotherday2paradise

    Oh yes, I was a great Biggles fan too. I just used to start at the beginning and devour the pages until it was finished. I think the youth of today are missing out on so much that we enjoyed in the gentler past, although I’m sure not many of them would agree with me.


    1. colonialist Post author

      Mentally as well as physically I think those days gave a better childhood. Less artificiality (to me books aren’t artificial) more freedom, and more time spent outdoors on unstructured adventure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Arkenaten

    The Opening Paragraph Syndrome – a drum relentlessly banged in Writers’ Advice columns which seems to be more about grabbing the attention of literary agents.

    But then, if it catches the attention of an agent they are more likely to push the book with enthusiasm.

    On a personal level I agree with disperser.
    As a writer I try to ensure the opening paragraph is like a statement of intent.
    The key is to maintain this throughout the book – and that is not easy!

    On your examples: Five will get you ten the average reader, let alone the average child, would probably have to look up the word Zenith.

    The style difference in the examples reflect the age/time they are/were written.
    And if the second example is yours’, Col, you should develop it.
    I have no genuine taste for YA, but it is a big market! If you can write it then why not?


    1. colonialist Post author

      The constantly given advice is certainly aimed at agents and publishers – who are then also among those lacking in reading skills. If they look at a book at all, they should be capable of absorbing at least the first couple of pages.
      Your comment has opened up recollections of how much I used to enjoy the relatively quiet opening scenes of an adventure story, showing the normal life before departure (I loved all stories taking one to another environment like King Solomon’s Mines) building up to the start of the action, and the haven to which return would come at the end.
      I scribbled the second example straight off the cuff, but can’t even imagine being able to continue that style through a whole book It would bore me to tears.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Arkenaten

        I used to be a fan of Clive Custler. I loved the way he began his books with several apparently disparate elements then skillfully brought them all together. Real, Boys Own stuff!


      2. colonialist Post author

        I am reminded of John Ball’s ‘Last Plane Out’ in which characters and events in Part 1 seem to have no connection with Part 2, but they are all neatly welded together in Part 3. I have never forgotten the book for that reason.


  4. calmgrove

    I’m not a youngster so not the right person to give an answer. But given that so many YA fantasy novels are happy to include unpronounceable characters and placenames in their opening paragraphs the Scottish names should be no impediment. At least ‘The day was hot’ has the advantage of being to the point and unambiguous.


    1. colonialist Post author

      So was,
      ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’
      So why was that one, at first sight, derided as the height of trite?

      And furthermore, because of rhyme,
      It must happen that this ditty
      would never, at the current time
      Meet regard as something witty.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kev

    Wow, I can finally put a face to the still existing carnegie library here in my humble city of Hull! One I also frequented in my youth… thanks for that Leslie! 😀



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