ACW

ACW

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

First impressions count - by Fran Hill

You can turn up to an interview in your fluffy rabbit slippers, or with your jumper on back to front, or saying, ‘Oops! Last night’s mascara! Sorry!’ But, the chances are, you won’t get the job.

First impressions count.

And so it is with the openings of novels. But tastes vary. One person's descriptive opening is another person's poison. 

I asked my Year 8 class (12-13 year old girls) to collect, for homework, ten ‘first lines’ of novels they had read and enjoyed. In the next lesson, in groups of four pupils, they pooled resources to come up with an agreed ‘best fifteen’. This took a while. Year 8s have strong opinions. The noise level rose in the room and, had a herd of wildebeest galloped past the school, the girls would have been the last to hear.

When each group had decided on its favourite fifteen, I distributed post-it notes. Teenagers love post-its. Forget cutting-edge gizmos and interactive whatnots. A piece of yellow paper on which you can write ‘Laugh at this person’ and stick on a classmate’s back wins hands down. 

I asked them to write each ‘first line’ on a post-it and re-organise them in descending order according to categories I displayed on the board. The most intriguing character voice. The most shocking statement. The highest number of words. The most mysterious. The most setting-based. The most action-based.

The arguments started again. A second herd of wildebeest ran past. The girls continued unaware.

‘Stop!’ I yelled. The wildebeest stopped. The girls carried on arguing.


'Hang on!' shouted the one at the front. 'Mrs Hill says stop, and I for one don't want a Saturday detention!'



In the end, I banged the desk with the Oxford English Dictionary. The noise abated, and we were able to discuss the decisions the girls had made.

What interested me was their preference for novels that start with action or a shocking statement. More than half a page of description and their interest wanes.

I told them, ‘When I was your age, and Father was out hunting bison while Mother swept the cave, it wasn’t considered outrageous for a novel to start with two or three pages of description.’

They were happier to believe I lived in a cave than to believe novels could start with that much description.

These are bright girls. They go to an independent school. But they want a strong, intriguing start to a novel with clear-cut characters and a fast-emerging plotline. Two pages of forestry or a seascape and their heads hit the book with a clunk.

I don’t know what I feel about this. I feel I ought to be sad. On the other hand, their lives are lived like Usain Bolt’s races are run: fast and furious. They have four apps open at once. They watch TV, chat on Facetime, do Geography homework and organise a netball match simultaneously. They are hurried and scurried around school (we have an eight-lesson day and next year it will be nine) until they don’t know which way is up.

Can I blame them for wanting the opening of a story to grab them and haul them into the book before they lose focus?

No, I can’t, especially when they’re so passionate about their opinions on books that they’re keen to shout about it. 

That’s something to be grateful for, even if they are louder than herds of wildebeest.








Fran Hill is the author of 'Being Miss', a novella about a day in the life of a harassed and trouble-prone teacher. You won't be surprised to find out that Fran is a harassed and trouble-prone teacher herself. You can find out about the book, and about other things she does, on her website here

16 comments:

  1. Fascinating post. I confess to being like your girls. I like the same thing in an opening sentence or paragraph. If it opens with a lot of deep description I find it really hard to push through into the book.

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    1. I don't mind a descriptive start if the writing is top-notch and pleases me in itself.

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  2. Do they like parallel stories about reality and imagination? Great post, Fran!

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    1. Their tastes are pretty wide, Sue, but I'd say fantasy and romances are top of the list at the moment.

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  3. I generally skip past descriptions wherever they happen to be in a book, so I'm with your girls. Hmm, I'd never thought before how I immerse myself in a world I conjure up which might be different to the one the writer saw and wrote about. Hmm....

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    1. I skip past if I'm a bit bored with the book and wanting to get to the end quickly. But if the writing's powerful, I'll stick with it.

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  4. So, after the stampede finally passed, what are the top fifteen? I'd love to read them.

    Three of my favourite YA books:
    "There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs."
    "The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth."
    "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea."

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    1. I don't have their list at home with me but I know one of the suggestions was the beginning of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink'. It's one of mine, too. Instantly engaging. I want to know about that character!

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    2. Oh yes, I agree about I Capture the Castle. Great opening sentence.

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  5. Very interesting and I have tried to start my new novel in a lively pacey way with dialogue because I feel we writers are brainwashed by the prevailing culture to do so. But the fact remains that several bestselling and literary and highly-regarded novels do start with descriptive and/or atmospheric passages. And they get away with it. That is because the writing is powerful. It would be a worthwhile exercise for our group to find some openings of the sort I describe, written by the ones who got away with it.

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    1. Maybe we should do 'beginnings' as a theme in our local group, Sheila, whether that be stories, poems or articles. It would be worth looking at in detail, as you say. Suggest it on Saturday?

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  6. Very interesting and I have tried to start my new novel in a lively pacey way with dialogue because I feel we writers are brainwashed by the prevailing culture to do so. But the fact remains that several bestselling and literary and highly-regarded novels do start with descriptive and/or atmospheric passages. And they get away with it. That is because the writing is powerful. It would be a worthwhile exercise for our group to find some openings of the sort I describe, written by the ones who got away with it.

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  7. Great post Fran. And I loved your ideas for how to organise them in categories (best setting-based etc). Please tell your girls Year 4 kids love Post-It notes too. In fact I think most of our KS2 curriculum is built around them.

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    1. I still love Post-its myself, to be honest. But then I love all stationery with a passion.

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  8. Great post - but can't stop here for long, I have some new first lines to write.

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    1. That's the solution to my problem of being such a bad finisher. Just concentrate on first lines. Why didn't I think of that?!

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