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I was blogging about opening lines the other day, and looking for examples. I came across the opening to American Gods, and realized that it's neither flashy nor something that will grab the reader in an obvious way, but it's quite effective and hooks the reader into the story very well. I'm just not sure how it's doing this. Far from being a traditionally attention-getting opening, this one is a slower, gentler seduction of the reader into the book's world:

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

The best thing--in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing--about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

It did not matter, Shadow decided, if you had done what you had been convicted of or not. In his experience everyone he met in prison was aggrieved about something: there was always something the authorities had got wrong, something they said you did when you didn't--or you didn't do quite like they said you did. What was important was that they had got you.

He had noticed it in the first few days, when everything, from the slang to the bad food, was new. Despite the misery and the utter skin-crawling horror of incarceration, he was breathing relief.

Of course, whether this is good writing or not is subjective, but I'd be interested in learning why this works on these terms. Why do we want to know more? What's keeping us reading? Is the informal language part of that? Is it Shadow's self-acceptance and confidence that's so attractive?

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Note: I've posted this as another example of an analysis question. If you'd like to discuss analysis questions, there's a conversation going on about them in this meta thread. –  Neil Fein Mar 5 '12 at 18:36
    
One of the concerns about questions like these is that they're too open-ended. I'm open to ideas about making this more specific. –  Neil Fein Mar 5 '12 at 18:46

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think it's three things. First, the accessible writing style, with its informal language that matches how regular people think and talk, is helpful but not sufficient. Second, the character's acceptance of the situation, which he appears to have accepted from the beginning, is unusual; we expect convicts to be hardened, angry people, and this is not that at all. Third, and probably related to the previous, is that we don't expect a criminal (he never protests his innocence here) to be a sympathetic character, yet this one seems to be.

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It's the acceptance which interests me. Also, that he explicitly states that he has hit bottom. Once you have hit bottom, there is nowhere to go but up -- and that becomes the momentum for the story. Okay, we're starting at the bottom; where do we go from here? How do we get out of the hole? –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 5 '12 at 19:21
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I was going to say exactly what Lauren said until I saw that Lauren already said it. The two key things are mysterious characterization and the odd and obviously misleading assertion that Shadow has nothing to be afraid of, that the worst is past. This can't be true, or we'd want to read the prequel instead of the story. We're being lied to, and we like it. –  Aerovistae Apr 26 '12 at 20:31
    
There are also a number of questions to peak curiosity. Hitting "rock bottom" seems to imply that something was wrong already, and you may be almost subconsciously curious to know what it was. Also, what did he do to get himself into prison? –  Eli Dec 23 at 3:11

 • I agree, this is a great opening. The first three lines are the sharpest, they prick your interest immediately:


Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.


Here's why they grip me:


1st Line • You meet Shadow and he has a cool name. He sounds mysterious. • It's a punchy sentence. It's simple and intriguing. You know where you are and yet you're not comfortable being there. • He's in an interesting place.


2nd Line • Shadow's a bad-ass. But his name is unknowable. • But we get to look at him. (killing time) • Shadow is likely to be our vehicle for the story. Q: What do we know about him? A: So far we know he's a big, tough vehicle; likely to be a good ride. • There's a nice play on him being unable to kill time, but anything living he could probably kill without raising a sweat.


3rd Line • Good - he's keeping in shape. He's limbering up for the journey he's about to take us on. This revs our engines as well. • Coin tricks are unusual and fun. They remind us of trickery, of cleverness. They are intricate like a whodunnit. This story is 3 lines in and already we have power and intrigue. • He has a wife: this shadow has depth. And a weakness. And a soul. He is vulnerable.


Neil Gaiman is a fantastic writer, he is interested in mystery most of all but he has an instinct for people. His characters always have depth and that's why you care about his stories.


For me a story must have: • a believable setting with flesh • characters who live, who you care about • significant events •


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What makes this opener work? It puts you square amidst the action--as the old classical folks would say, in medias res, and introduces you to an interesting character, and tells us why me might be interested in that character.

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