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Monday January 21, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night ...

The opening line can make or break a novel.

When it comes to buying a novel, the opening sentences have to draw me in and make me want to read more. Otherwise, I’ll stick the book back on the shelf and move onto the next one.

Over the years, I’ve encountered some pretty bad opening lines that make me wonder if some publishers know what they are doing. For example, here’s a decidedly unromantic first sentence from a romance novel: “His flatulence reared up like a proud stallion.”

If there’s anything that’s guaranteed to kill any romantic notions it’s talk of flatulence and other bodily functions.

One of the most infamous opening sentences just has to be: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I don’t know about struggling against the darkness, but I’d certainly struggle to read beyond that sentence.

Written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Paul Clifford in1830, the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” is now regarded as a byword for purple prose, a style of writing that is considered flowery and over the top. Indeed, Bulwer-Lytton’s writing style has given rise to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual event that aims to find the worst opening line.

If recent contest submissions are anything to go by, bad opening lines are developing into an artform of their own. Here’s one such opener: “Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’, a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death – in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.”

For every bad opening line, there are just as many wonderful ones that pique your curiosity and make you want to find out more.

One of my favourites is from The Crow Road by Iain Banks: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I mean to say, you can’t beat an exploding grandmother if you want to grab someone’s attention.

Of course, buying a book based on the opening lines alone can sometimes lead to disappointment, especially when you’re considering the work of an unknown author.

Some books start off well and then quickly begin to lose momentum, until you begin to feel as if you’re walking through treacle. It’s almost as if the author has spent weeks, possibly months, perfecting their opening sentences; polishing them to the extent that any potential reader will be dazzled by them (magpie-like) and lured into buying the book.

After such a great opening, the remainder of such books lapse into a sad state of mediocrity.

“The first 100 pages were tough going,” I’ve heard some people say about a book that didn’t live up to the promise of the opening sentences, “but I persevered and really enjoyed it.”

I’m surprised by the patience of such people. After all, 100 pages of walking through treacle just to get to the good part means a lot of hard work eating into my precious downtime.

But I’ve recently been told that I’ve got it all wrong.

It seems that I would be better off turning to page 99 if I want to get a better idea of a book’s quality. According to a friend, by the time you’re about a quarter of the way through an average-sized novel, the characters will be fleshed out and the plot will be unfolding nicely, but not to the extent that it will give too much away.

Of course, there’s a risk that I might come across a piece of information on page 99 that will spoil the preceding pages for me.

For example, if I were to encounter the following piece of text on page 99 of a murder mystery book, I’m not going to be very happy: Inspector Clueless pulled the sheet back over Alice Pickering’s cold, inert body. He’d been wrong again. With the two main suspects dead, he would have to start all over again.

I’ve just applied the 99-page test to an unread novel in my bookcase, and it reads like treacle.

Maybe things will get better on page 100.

Check out Mary on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mary.schneider.writer. Reader response can be directed to star2@thestar.com.my.

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