Is It a Great Opening? Try the Barking Dog Test

Thursday, May 14, 2020
I was taking my shower, thinking about this week’s blog post; specifically, I was thinking about what makes a great opener in a novel. And then Libs the Tiny Terror’s barks rang out through the house!

I hate when I’m in the shower and Libs starts barking. If it’s a short and sweet bark, then I can relax. But if it’s a constant LOUD ruf-ruf-ruf-ruf-RUF, then of course I’m spiraling straight into some horrific scenario reminiscent of Psycho. And so I have to jump out of the shower and find out what’s going on out there.

And as I headed back up the stairs, still dripping (and P.S. There was no one outside my house, wielding a weapon), I thought that’s it! A great opener is like a dog barking while you’re in the shower! You have to find out what’s going on. (And fine, thanks to Libs for the inspiration.)

So on to great openers that have passed the Barking Dog (while-you're-in-the-shower) Test.

Sometimes, a great opener to a novel is the first line. The classic and oft-used example of a first line that grabs the reader immediately comes from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

When we read that first line, about an ax (Ironic, right?), we are instantly drawn in and want to know what’s going on. I mean, an ax never bodes well for man nor beast.

An opening killer line (no pun intended), whether it’s a novel, short story, or even a magazine or newspaper article is an art. And trying to come up with that spectacular hook of a line can keep you from getting on with it. So if that amazing first line doesn’t come to you, move on to writing the great opening paragraph (where you’ll often find the hook at the end).

You may have a favorite, and perhaps you’ll find it among one of these cited in “Literature’s Greatest Opening Paragraphs.” For my money, you can’t beat Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…

That paragraph sends shivers down my spine. But especially those last few words “…whatever walked there, walked alone…” I have to know. What in the holy horror is going on in Hill House?

But sometimes, more is needed to suck the reader into the story; sometimes, it takes a whole chapter, or maybe a prologue. There are plenty of terrific examples here, too, but if you need just one novel where the first chapter introduces just about everything—premise, setting, protagonist, conflict—and still makes you scream, “WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?” then read (or re-read) Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It’s a stunning hook of a chapter (and why it was on the NYT best-seller list for 260 consecutive weeks)!

Perhaps you’re not doing a lot of writing quite yet but you can become a better writer right now. Research great openings and read, read, read. Dissect the sentences and the paragraphs and the first chapters to see what makes them work as un-put-downable openings. And then hope and pray that your library has these books available to download ‘cause I promise you, it will be just like the dog barking while you’re in the shower.

(P.S. What’s your favorite opening in a novel? Or put another way, what book am I going to try to download today?)

~Cathy C. Hall (and Libs the Tiny Terror)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--One of my favorite opening lines is in Barbara Robinette Moss' memoir, Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter:

"Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking." The author continues in that first paragraph, describing how the family watched their mother, along with the hands of the clock, to see if she would die."

As you said, great openings make the reader sit up and take notice. They make the reader wonder, 'What is going on?' and then they can't help but keep reading.

Thanks for the nudge (I'm going to look at my manuscript's opening since I've gotten a flood of publishing contract offers so far ;) Also, thanks for the reminder of how Charlotte's Web opens. That was my favorite book when I was in 3rd grade, and I still love it!

Pat Wahler said...

Opening lines are so important in grabbing a reader's attention. How about this one from Orwell's 1984?

"It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Oh man, who wouldn't want to know more?

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, yes, a person eating poison would certainly grab me, too, Sioux.

My favorite poison-eating scene is in The Beguiled when Clint Eastwood's sipping that soup and all those fine Southern women just sit around the table...waiting and talking and such.

Seriously chilling. *shivers*

Angela Mackintosh said...

The opening of this post, your shower scene, pulled me right in, Cath! :)

I love the Hill House opening! What gorgeous, chilling prose. I've always wanted to read that book. I saw the Netflix series. So good.

And Sioux: that's a MEMOIR? I'm so in the mood for a great memoir right now, and that one sounds wicked.

One of my favorites has to be the first line of Fight Club:

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

... With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oooh, Fight Club. Definitely fixin' to read that!

Peggy Shaw said...

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”.) Same book has my favorite ending lines. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Cathy C. Hall said...

Peggy, that's one of the few field trips I ever went on--going to see the movie, A Tale of Two Cities. Loved it so much that I read the 8th grade, I think?

And yes, that last line gets me every time. Thanks for sharing!

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