Opening lines are by far the most important sentences that a novelist will write.
I don’t mean they’re artistically the most important. Want the critics to love your novel? Want to go down in history as one of the greats? Then every single word you write, from the first to the last, will contribute equally the novel’s overall artistic success.
But in commercial terms (and you must never forget that publishing a novel is a business), the job of an opening line is to hook the agent, the publisher or the reader.
If these people can’t get beyond an uninspiring opening sentence, the thousands of wonderful words which follow might just as well not exist.
In the section on plotting a novel, I talked in detail about the importance of a strong beginning and how to construct one.
More specifically, I talked about introducing the reader to a compelling character and giving that character a pressing problem to solve.
The beginning of a novel, however, accounts for the first two or three (or more) chapters. Agents, publishers and readers will find any excuse they can to stop reading before they’ve made it that far.
- Chapter One doesn’t hook them? They won’t read Chapter Two.
- The first page doesn’t grab them? They won’t bother turning over to the next one.
- Opening paragraph (and the opening line in particular) a little on the dull side? They’ll put down your novel and pick up another one.
What Makes For a Great Opening Line?
You’ll know you’ve found your ideal opening sentence when you stop trying to improve it, or stop trying to find a better one. In other words, you’ll just know.
This perfect first sentence might come to you straight away or not until much later. You might recognize it immediately as a great opening line or it might take time to grow on you.
Sooner or later, though, it will seem inconceivable to you to start your novel in any other way.
As to what makes for a great opener: that one isn’t so easy to answer. I can give you a few guiding principles…
- It’s generally better to start with a line of prose, not with a line of dialogue.
- It’s best not to describe the setting in the opening sentence, but to get straight down to the “who” and the “what” of character and plot.
- If you begin by naming a character, it should ideally be the main character and not a minor player.
But these are, of course, general guidelines only and you should feel free to break them. (It’s the old thing: if it works, it works, even if it breaks every rule in the book.)
A better piece of advice is to make your opening line unusual, unexpected or somehow arresting. Do that and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a hooked reader on your hands.
That’s still very vague, though, so here’s something meatier to chew on…
Write an opening line that raises questions in a reader’s mind.
Why? Because when something puzzles us, our natural instinct is to read on to discover the answer.
If you raise a compelling question, don’t provide the answer to the question too soon. Sometimes the best way to keep a reader reading is to make them wait!
Examples of Opening Lines
There are as many ways to write great opening lines for a novel as there are novels. And, yes, there are plenty of great stories out there that don’t exactly begin with a bang.
Remember, too, that what might make a great opening line in one novel might not work at all in another. (Readers of genre fiction, for example, will want to get stuck in straight away to the nitty-gritty of the plot. Fans of literary fiction, on the other hand, might be satisfied by a finely-crafted, almost poetic first line.)
It’s impossible, then, to come up with some sort of formula for crafting the perfect first sentence. All I can do is give you examples of what I believe are great opening lines, then say why I think they’re great. You might agree or disagree with my choices or reasons. But hopefully the exercise will at least provide plenty of food for thought.
The first example of a great opening line comes from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany…
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
Talk about raising questions! Why does Owen Meany have a wrecked voice? What did he have to do with the death of the narrator’s mother? Most of all, what did Owen Meany do to make the narrator believe in God?
You’ll need to read the entire novel to discover the answer to the last one. And that, of course, was precisely what Irving intended.
The only downside is that it’s a looooonnng opening sentence, and short is generally better. Like in this next example (from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler)…
While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.
Does this raise questions? You bet. Who is Pearl Tull? Why is she dying? And what’s the funny thought?
But what I actually like about this opening line is its unexpectedness. You don’t normally associate death with laughter, right? The sentence, unlike in the previous example, hasn’t totally hooked me yet. But it at least makese me want to read on for a while.
Here is the first sentence of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar…
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
When the sentence begins, you think it will be a simple description of the weather, which is kind of a boring way to start a novel. But then you get the electrocution detail (unexpectedness again). Finally, the narrator admits to not knowing why she’s in New York (how come?). The reader will want to stick around while she figures it out.
Now for one of the classic opening lines in literature, one which has lost none of its power in the sixty years since it was published. It’s the opening of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye…
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Here, the writer is going to the polar opposite of raising questions. He’s refusing to supply any answers. And that in itself is intriguing. But the main incentive to keep reading here, of course, is the voice and attitude of the narrator. How could you not feel compelled to keep reading after an opening line like that?
The beginning of The Catcher in the Rye famously references David Copperfield. Here is how Dickens’ novel begins (it’s actually the first two lines)…
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.
I added the second sentence because it is the one that Holden Caulfield refers to as “all the David Copperfield kind of crap” above. But the sentence I want to talk about is the first one. Yes, it looks old-fashioned now. But I still believe it’s a great way to open a novel, and one which it is possible to put a modern twist on.
Next, the opening of City of Glass by Paul Auster…
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
This, in my opinion, is a near-perfect way to hook the reader. The sentence raises questions – not least, the question of what was “started” by the phone call. And the slightly unusual way that the sentence ends (“asking for someone he was not”) makes me think that here is a writer who can write.
Here’s how Ray Bradbury starts Farenheit 451…
It was a pleasure to burn.
Unexpectedness again. You have no idea what that sentence means, but you sure want to read on to find out.
And finally, the opening of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger…
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I like this opening line because it gets straight down to business. How could you not find the concept of a gunslinger following a man exciting? It raises questions, too. Who is the man in black? And why is the gunslinger on his trail?
Another reason I love it is that, to my ear, it has an almost poetic quality to it, particularly the second part (“and the gunslinger followed”). Which just goes to show: anybody who dismisses genre fiction as being strong on plot and weak on everything else doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
I could go on indefinitely with these examples of well-written opening lines, but I won’t.
Like I said, you might agree or disagree with my choices. But hopefully they’ve inspired you to think about what your choices would be and, ultimately, what the opening line of your novel will be.
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