There is a lot of advice on writing on the internet these days – by professionals and amateurs alike. My favourite is Alyssa Matesic, freelance editor, who has a youtube channel providing all manner of professional advice to writers. She has a video on How to Nail Your Novel Opening and Hook Your Reader. Crime Reads website gives examples from Graham Greene’s novels of outstanding opening paragraphs. They are worth studying.
Graham Greene and the Art of the Opening Paragraph
Dwyer Murphy, Crime Reads
It’s no wonder that Graham Greene, a man who sampled so abundantly from life’s many offerings and made it a matter of constitutional pride never to turn down the chance of an adventure, excelled at what we now call world-building. Although sci-fi and fantasy writers tend to get the nod as masters of the craft, world-building has long been a cornerstone of the thriller, especially the international thriller, that rarefied form in which a reader is dropped into a new terrain, a new culture, and has to learn to decipher its signs and signifiers well enough to know when the whole enterprise is being compromised. The literary work must be done swiftly, and to great effect, and there was no one for it like Graham Greene, a writer who could conjure up a life, a setting, a dilemma, and a worldview, all in a few neat lines.
Greene, born 115 years ago today in Hertfordshire, lived a complex, globetrotting, ambivalent life. He was a journalist, a teacher, a converted Catholic, an Englishman in frequent exile, a screenwriter, an ambitious novelist, an author of “entertainments,” a spy, a sympathizer of guerrillas and dictators alike, and a man of deeply held moral beliefs. With all that experience, all he’d seen of the world, and with a honed craft, he brought the international thriller (and other styles) to new heights and left an indelible mark on the history of 20th century literature. His stories moved from far-flung locales to the damp streets of English seaside towns. Havana, Saigon, Port-au-Prince, Brighton, Dover, the Mexican countryside, an Argentine border town—he brought each of them to life with rich stories of intrigue and struggle. Often expats and westerners were his subjects (and often his fiction reflected views we now recognize as racist), but he never shied away from exploring the lives of locals and how they’d been disrupted by the intrusions and exploitations of global powers.
Today we’re celebrating one piece of Greene’s craft: the opening paragraph. Assembled here for your reading pleasure are ten of his greatest opening gambits (ranked, roughly). Note how much depth Greene packs into these lines, how he launches the story forward without any ostentatious bells or whistles, just an authenticity of voice and a confidence in craft. Who else could have written these lines but Greene?