I saw a competition for travel writing openers recently and I shook my head. I wish I could wave a wand and remove Opening Sentence Stress from budding travelogue writers. You see, I don’t think the opening sentence important. The opening paragraph is.
Let me emphasise that this doesn’t apply to articles or short stories. They have different rules, from the Five Ws (Who Where Why When & What) to the Opening Startler : “So there I was in a pot with a cannibal family dancing around me. How did I get there?” I think this is cross-fertilisation with TV series where, in many episodes, the opening five minutes show the hero(ine) in a tricky situation and then fade out only to subtitle the next scene “48 hours earlier”.
But in a book you are there for the long run. And unlike fiction, which is, well, fictitious, travel writing is non-fiction, so you have some idea of the content. If you buy a book about South Africa, chances are you know about apartheid and Nelson Mandela. If you buy a book about Brazil you must have heard about their football team or Rio’s carnival. What you want from a travelogue is a literary journey with a figure you trust: the author.
So, unlike magazine articles, opening sentences in travel books are not that important. I’m not saying that you have to start with a cliché “It was a dark and stormy night”, “Rio de Janeiro is a city of contrasts” or “Istanbul is where East meets West”. I’m saying that it is the first paragraph in its entirety that’s important. It should have a topic running through it that introduces – and matches the feel of – the book. Plus many a travel book has a prologue; mine all do. It’s hard to be that catchy in a generally expositional prologue.
In the next page we see how writers have gone about it.