Ex Libris

7th January 2015 | Books, Musings | 2 comments

At New Year we played a game we hadn’t played for ages – Ex Libris. It’s a game where all the players have to write the opening or closing sentence of a book which already exists. Each player in turn selects a book from the shelves (obviously you have to have lots of books to hand – this isn’t a game to play on a hiking trip). They read out the ‘blurb’ on the cover, or explain what the book is about, who wrote it, when and where, etc. Then each person has to imagine the opening (or closing) sentence and write it down.

The person who is ‘It’ gathers up all the suggestions, retires to somewhere where the others can’t see them shuffling the papers (behind the sofa in our case) and reads out the sentences, including the book’s real opening sentence, smuggled in amongst the rest. The other players then have to guess which is the real opening sentence. Anyone who guesses correctly gets a point. Anyone whose invented sentence is chosen as the ‘real’ one also gets a point. Guessing correctly is fun, but it’s even more satisfying to make up a sentence which other people think is the real one.

It’s amazing how skilful and imaginative people can be in coming up with a plausible sentence of the right style, era, atmosphere etc. We had players of every age, from schoolchildren to senior citizens, and they were all really good. Time after time we found that the players’ spontaneous inventions were chosen as the most likely ‘real’ opening, and sometimes they seemed almost more apt than the author’s own.

Browsing the shelves for suitable books, I noticed an interesting thing. Many of the books I picked up, even books I knew were fabulous, had quite neutral opening sentences, not hinting at the richness to come, not seeking to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck. Indeed, the closing sentence was often ‘quiet’ and modest as well. Yet when we played the game, we all tried to pack our single sentence with as much promise and colour as we could. Nobody wanted to waste their turn by writing a few matter-of-fact words. Yet this is what a confident author often does in reality. They begin with a single step, not a flourish.


  1. Mary

    How interesting! As a composer at this very moment ‘doing battle’ (in an enjoyable way!) with a small commission for a choir, I have spent the past two days repeatedly going back to the opening bars to check that every section flows seamlessly from the first note. Indeed, I’ve been conscious that the opening phrase needs to be -as you say – ‘confident’ but still works as the beginning of a journey. An added complication I have given myself is that currently part of this phrase gets repeated between verses, but I won’t know if it can always stay exactly the same until I have completed everything else. Will the final phrase be the same as the first? Or will I need to make subtle changes to all the links in the middle if the end needs to be different? This makes me wonder how many versions of opening or closing lines get written before the author is satisfied?

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Mary – always interesting to have a composer’s insights! The point you raise is interesting, and I wonder if authors sometimes begin with a striking opening, and then change it later on (when they know what comes next) to something that lures the reader gently onward instead of dazzling them?


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