5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction

Tips for Writers and Readers

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”

A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.

Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:

A Tale of Two Cities:

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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …

David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.

Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.

Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.

In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.

Mind Prey by John Sandford

The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.

Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.

A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.

Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Recent Browsing History

Here are some of the recent articles that have caught my eye.

Is the human brain hardwired to appreciate poetry?
George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

Literature can enthuse medicine, and medicine can inspire literature. They are complementary treatments for being human.

The Stubborn Optimist

Following the persevering example of the writer and activist Grace Paley


A new book is the first to bring clinical expertise to the poet’s case. What does it reveal about his work?

Did Jane Austen die of arsenic poisoning? Maybe. Maybe not.

Books, Movies & TV to Look for in 2017

Now that we’ve finished up with lists of the best books of 2016, it’s time to start thinking about the best books to read in 2017.

Spring 2017 Announcements: All Our Coverage

Publishers Weekly has us covered with a look at the following categories of books:

  • Art, Architecture, & Photography
  • Business & Economics
  • Comics & Graphic Novels
  • Cooking & Food
  • Essays & Literary Criticism
  • History
  • Lifestyle
  • Literary Fiction
  • Memoirs & Biographies
  • Mysteries & Thrillers
  • Poetry
  • Politics & Current Events
  • Romance & Erotica
  • Science
  • SF, Fantasy, & Horror
2017’s Most Anticipated Movie Adaptations

The movie industry has obliged our curiosity and anticipation with a schedule heavy on book- and fact-based stories that run from animated family films to thrillers and comedies, sequels and continuations, comic books and biopics, war films and romance. There are two gigantic Stephen King adaptations on the docket, and sci-fi/fantasy fans with a literary bent have three eagerly awaited films coming this year.

5 Nonfiction Books We’re Excited to Read in 2017

If you’re into current affairs, true crime, science, or history, we think you’ll love these soon-to-be-released books.

What You’ll Be Reading in 2017

John Williams of The New York Times point out some books, both fiction and nonfiction, he’s looking forward to in 2017.

Which Books Are Coming to TV in 2017?

Ian McShane & Neil Gaiman, Amy Adams & Gillian Flynn, Elizabeth Moss & Margaret Atwood —TV is about to have a very literary year.

25 of the Most Exciting Book Releases for 2017

Vulture has the news for you on upcoming book releases.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2017 Book Preview

From The Millions:

Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past.

The 25 Most Anticipated Books by Women for 2017

From Elle:

Phew, 2016. We can’t remember ever being so happy to see a year end, even as the next brings only uncertainty. There is one thing we know for sure, though: Misogyny has had far too big a public platform, in these past few months especially. So we’re kicking off the new year with a preview of extraordinary books by women, with an eye to how women live, imagine, and think across the globe. Now, more than ever, we need compelling fiction to widen the bounds of our empathy and imaginations, and strong women’s voices to guide us.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Even More Best Books of 2016 Lists

Adam Woog’s 10 best mysteries of 2016

Seattle Times book reviewer Adam Woog lists his favorites in one of my favorite literary genres.

PW’s Top Authors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2016

A short list compiled by Publishers Weekly.

2016 By the Books: A Month-by-Month Reader’s Guide

This list takes a bit of an unusual approach to analyzing the books of 2016:

For help understanding what the heck happened in 2016, and how Trump stands to inherit it all, check out these 12 books paired with each month’s major news.

10 Overlooked Books of 2016: From The Red Car to Future Sex

It was a profound year for the written word and yet many incredible books remain unsung. Here are ten books from 2016 that deserve your time and attention.

The Best Children’s Books of 2016

Maria Popova chooses her favorite picture books of the year.

These are the top 100 books of the year, according to Google

The year’s top “books and graphic novels … ranked based on their popularity in the Google Play store.” This method of evaluation means that not all the books listed here were published in 2016.

Customer Favorites: 2016’s Top-Selling New Releases

From Amazon: “List counts only first editions published in 2016 and includes paid units in print and Kindle.”

The mother list is broken down into several categories:

  • Top 20 Overall Customer Favorites for 2016
  • Top 20 Customer Favorites in Kids & Young Adult
  • Top 20 Most Wished For Books of 2016
  • Top 20 Most Gifted Books of 2016


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Reading

An old-school book lover in praise of the audiobook

Brian Howe admits, “I don’t always take easily to new technology.” He still doesn’t use an e-reader—not, he explains, as an ethical matter but because texts for his obscure reading tastes, like small-press poetry, are generally not available as e-books.

But, Howe says, he has become a fan of audiobooks. He started when a new job required a long commute. He started with genre fiction and with books he’d already read in print. Gillian Flynn’s “_Gone Girl_ was the turning point when audiobooks began to shed their guilty pleasure status.” He found the actors who read the parts of Nick and Amy so captivating that when he saw what he calls “the horridly miscast movie, I hated it, because those voice actors were Nick and Amy to me.”

I had a similar concern with the Harry Potter series. I’ve never read any of the books in print. I came to all of them through the captivating audio versions narrated by Jim Dale. Although Dale read the whole book himself, he used several voices for the various characters. When the first Harry Potter movie was set to debut, I wondered if Jim Dale’s reading would spoil the experience of hearing different voices by the actors in the movie. But it didn’t, even though I loved Dale’s reading.

For Howe, “The best audiobooks transcend mere recitations to become dramatic productions, somewhere between novels and plays.” Although I loved Jim Dale’s variety of voices, I prefer that approach of a single reader to more dramatic audio representations in which different actors voice the various characters. I find such representations slightly annoying because they break for me the feeling that I’m still “reading” a work of literature. Plays are good things, but I also love the fact of having a novel’s world build up in my head as I read. Audiobooks with multiple readers break that illusion for me by making a book seem more like a theatrical presentation than a novel.

But I am glad to read Howe’s admission that “Audiobooks will never replace reading for me, but they have become a unique, enriching annex of it.” I’ve never understood why many readers are so eager to think in dichotomies, forcing us to choose between print and e-books, and between reading and listening. Why do we have to choose just one? I have room in my own life for print books, e-books, and audiobooks. One isn’t inherently better than the others. They’re just different choices available to allow us to experience literature under different circumstances.

Is Literary Adaptation Better on Film or on Television?

M. King Adkins addresses a different question: Which is better, a film or a television adaptation of a book? Adkins cites the statistic that “between 1994 and 2013, 58 percent of the top grossing movies produced were some sort of adaptation (Novels into Films: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema, George Bluestone, 2003).”

When we read a novel, Adkins writes, we know the end is coming as the stack of pages under our right hand becomes thinner and thinner.

Television series, on the other hand just don’t resolve, at least not until they must. Instead, they actively avoid resolution, delaying it to the last possible moment: the finalé (and how many of those have turned out to be satisfying?)

And, Adkins continues, video games go television even one better by allowing us to participate in the acting out, and thereby the writing, of the narrative. This brings him to the following conclusion:

I doubt very much we will stop pushing the generic boundaries until it’s possible to plug our brains directly into the computer and live out an alternative existence. Mark my words: one of these days, you’ll notice, in fine print at the bottom of your vision, “This life is based on the book by…”

‘Writing America’ identifies our literary landmarks

In “Writing America,” Stanford professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin surveys the literary landscape, exploring the ways American writers have influenced, and been influenced by, their surroundings. Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act, the book traces the footsteps of William Faulkner, Allen Ginsberg, Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others.

4 Steps to Read Like a Writer

The Write Practice is a web site aimed at helping fiction writers get better at their craft. To be a good writer one must also be a good reader, and in this article Ruthanne Reid explains how to read like a writer. But even if you don’t aspire to write fiction, you can become a better reader.

According to Reid, there are four steps to reading like a writer:

(1) Marking passages that you find particularly moving while reading. You can’t analyze effective passages unless you can find them. For this Reid recommends—no surprise here—the use of sticky notes.

(2) Asking three big questions:

  • What was powerful?
  • Why was it powerful?
  • How did it achieve that power?

(3) Mimicking your favorite books. Practice writing in other writers’ styles so that you can discover your own.

(4) Practicing.

Read Reid’s explanations of how to perform these four steps to help you read like a writer.

Related material: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. See especially the first chapter, entitled “Close Reading.”

Monday Miscellany

Ranking Cormac McCarthy’s Greatest Books

child of godI’m a week behind with this, but I include it here because Cormac McCarthy is an author I haven’t yet worked on, and I’m glad to have the suggestions offered here:

Trailing Philip Roth by a few months and Toni Morrison by two years, Cormac McCarthy (who turns 81 this weekend) is one of America’s greatest and most decorated writers. His cultural stock has risen immeasurably in the last decade — whether it’s the Coen brothers adapting No Country for Old Men and winning Best Picture at the Oscars for it, or his recent (disappointing) original screenplay for the Ridley Scott-directed film The Counselor, McCarthy has made the transition from great novelist to phenomenon. He’s continuously successful, but he’s never changed, and doesn’t show any signs of letting his advanced age soften him. His entire body of work includes screenplays, plays, and short fiction — but it’s his novels that remain his greatest achievement, so to celebrate his birthday, we rank the five McCarthy novels you must read (and if it helps, the order in which you should do it.)

Man Booker Prize longlist revealed with U.S. writers included for the first time

This was perhaps the biggest literary news of the past week:

The Man Booker prize longlist was revealed today with American authors in the running for one of literature’s top honours for the first time.

Organisers of the UK’s best-known fiction award – worth £50,000 to the winner – announced last year they were opening up the 46-year-old prize to writers of any nationality writing in English.

The American writers on the list include David Mitchell, David Nicholls, and Howard Jacobson.

The best literary hashtags on Twitter

Michele Filgate tells us, “some of the most interesting and useful hashtags on Twitter are designed to build community in the far-flung literary world.”

To join the community, take a look at these seven hashtags she explains.

Don’t read this book: A history of literary censorship

Banned Books Week pinLeo Robson takes a look at censorship through the lens of three recent books:

  • The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
  • The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
  • The Rushdie Fatwa and After: a Lesson to the Circumspect by Brian Winston

13 Ways To Fit More Reading Into Your Day

Chances are that, if you’re reading this blog, you probably already know some of the tricks listed here.

However, I bet you’ll find something new in these suggestions by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. If nothing else, you’ll get permission to stop reading a book that doesn’t grab you instead of soldiering through to the bitter end.

Our 8 favourite literary references on The Simpsons

Cable network FXX will run a non-stop marathon of all 552 episodes of The Simpsons from August 21 through September 1.

If you need a literary reason to justify watching or recording, here it is:

To mark the ultimate Simpsons marathon, we’re highlighting our favourite hilarious literary references that made their way onto the show in past years.

Celebrate International Women’s Day

International Women's Day
via internationalwomensday.com

Today is International Women’s Day.

And here, once again courtesy of the folks at The Scout Report, are some informative sites.

WomenWatch: UN Information and Resources on Gender Equality and Empowerment

The WomenWatch website is dedicated to providing “information and resources on gender equality and empowerment of women.” It is an initiative of the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE) and the site is a veritable cornucopia of information on this vast and timely subject. In the Quick Links and Features, visitors can view the UN Gender Equality News Feed, which is a great way to get a sense of the main issues affecting women around the world. Moving on, the Documents and Publications area contains seminal reports such as “Seeing Beyond the State: Grassroots Women’s Perspectives on Corruption and Anti-Corruption.” Also, the News and Highlight s area contains links to partner organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. These links include radio clips, news releases, and other key pieces of information.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

Gifts of Speech: Women’s Speeches from Around the World

The Gifts of Speech site brings together speeches given by women from all around the world. The site is under the direction of Liz Linton Kent Leon, who is the electronic resources librarian at Sweet Briar College. First-time users may wish to click on the How To… area to learn how to navigate the site. Of course, the FAQ area is a great way to learn about the site as well, and it should not be missed as it tells about the origin story for the site. In the Collections area, visitors can listen in to all of the Nobel Lectures delivered by female recipients and look at a list of the top 100 speeches in American history as determined by a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A & M Univ ersity. Users will also want to use the Browse area to look over talks by women from Robin Abrams to Begum Kahaleda Zia, the former prime minster of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

International Museum of Women

This wonderful website provides information about and links to the exhibits curated by the International Museum of Women (IMOW). The goal of the Museum is “to inspire creativity, awareness and action on vital global issues for women.” The Museum, which exists online only, has a global council that includes prominent women like Zainab Salbi and Eve Ensler. First-time visitors should browse the Exhibition area, as it features rotating exhibits like “Curating Change.” This display features a wonderful set of women like Mahnaz Afkhami and Tiffany Dufu talking about leadership, community, and other pertinent topics. Users shouldn’t miss the Events area, as it contains information about the IMOW’s special events, along with information on past events and a community calendar. Educators, activists, and others will want to give the Community area close consideration. Here they will find ways to connect with other interesting people and powerful ideas from around the world. The site is rounded out by an in-house blog, “Her Blueprint.”

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/