Jul 14, 2010


READING: Hot Shot by Suzanne Brockmann

WATCHING: Outrageous Fortune - yay, it's back!

LISTENING TO: French Kiss sound-track

MAKING ME SMILE: Having a week at home to write!

Today is a salute to that most difficult skills of all; writing the opening words of a novel. They should be pithy. Piquant. Vivid. Thoughtful or thought-provoking. Funny is good too. The first sentence needs to catch the imagination, arrest the attention of the most casual of glances. At its finest, it should provide a glimpse of the central theme and set the tone whilst enticing readers not only to continue to the end of the first paragraph but to also have fingers half-way to turning the first page.

It’s a big ask from a few words and yet we have scores of fine examples which do achieve all that and more.

Some opening lines have gone down in the Literary Hall of Quotes and it is fitting to begin this tribute with the Goddess of Romance writing, Jane Austen. Come on, all together now:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Not to be outdone, Dickens later gave us: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Another classic comes from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The giants of literature aren’t the only ones to have inspired openings. One of my personal favourites couldn’t be simpler: I come from Des Moines. Someone had to.

With those words I became an instant fan of Bill Bryson and continue to be a groupie to this day.

I also have a fondness for the somewhat thoughtful The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (L.P. Hartley The Go-Between). I read this book as a teenager and it was the first time I became aware of the unreliable narrator and was fascinated to see the story unfold on two levels.

William Gibson’s first sentence to Neuromancer sends a tingle down the spine. I wish I’d written it!

The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.

Some first sentences provoke curiosity in the most disengaged reader.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

'Why?' we ask. But Dodie Smith doesn’t immediately answer the question in I Capture a Castle. She plays with us just a little more...

That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with ours dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring – I wrote my best poems while sitting on the hen-house.

The narrator is already vividly alive, the setting strongly drawn in a few lines.

Nick Hornby’s first sentence of How To Be Good drags the reader rapidly into the next three sentences:

I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of ...slips out.

The theme is there and so is a sense of voice.

Then there is the genius of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Setting, character, motivation and style all economically and vividly portrayed.

Ronald Hugh Morrieson memorably set the rollicking tone of his The Scarecrow; a half-comedic half-gothic tale of murder and mayhem in small town New Zealand with:

The same week our chooks were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.

Did J.K. have a shiver of presentiment of the phenomenon she was about to spawn when she penned the now historic words:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I could go on and on. Writing this blog gave me a happy excuse to sit amongst my books, dabbling first into this one, then into that. The only problem was that so many opening sentences enticed that I found myself being irresistibly drawn back into story after story. Opening lines indeed doing their intended job.

If anyone out there has some more gems to share, I’d love to hear them.


  1. Hi Zana --
    Great post! I love catchy first lines. Austen's P and P and Wilson's Neuromancer lines are some of my favs.

    Here are a couple more:

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    ~ 1984 by George Orwell

    Ross Wakeman succeeded the first time he killed himself, but not the second or the third.
    ~ Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. ~The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

  2. Ah Anna, those are pearls. Many thanks! I haven't read Second Glance but certainly my curiosity is aroused now....

    I'd forgotten the first sentence of Dawn Treader - a favourite of my youth!

    Orwell manages to strike a chill with the simplest of words, doesn't he.

  3. Great opening lines, Zana. Seeing them as a collection like that really brings home how fabulous and effective they are.

    And what a lovely opportunity to delve into the bookcase... so naturally, I took it!

    I've always loved Dick Francis's way with an opening line - and his books are written in first person so there's such an immediate draw in for me as a reader....

    "I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me." ~ HIGH STAKES

    "I intensely disliked my father's fifth wife, but not to the point of murder." ~ HOT MONEY

    And one that's slightly different and really poignant I think... from PROOF ~ "Agony is socially unacceptable."

    Sue Grafton does great opening lines too and again she writes in first person...

    From L IS FOR LAWLESS comes this which I think is priceless and poses all sorts of great questions ~ "I don't mean to be a bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favor for the friend of a friend."

    So I suspect that I should stop delving now and go and do some work! ;)

  4. Great topic, Zana! Some of my faves:

    "It wasn't every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard's larger-than-life world."
    Natural Born Charmer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips (though I could have used any of SEP's opening lines - she's *so* good at them!).

    "Madeline Mercy Delacourte quite liked looking at near-naked men."
    Untameable Rogue (Sexy Sensation / Modern Extra) by Kelly Hunter (who writes such sumptuous books that live up to their opening lines).

    "If someone had told Tom that by the end of the day he'd have delivered nine babies, he would have turned and headed for Darwin."
    Tom Bradley's Babies (M&B Sweet / Romance) by Marion Lennox (another absolute master of the perfect opening!).

    Thanks for all the other great opening lines, Zana!

  5. Ooh, Zana, great post! And great examples! (You also have me dying to read both Neuromancer and I Capture a Castle now)

    One of my fave opening lines is from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It sends shivers through me: It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

    And some just from close at hand (as I know I will lose myself if I go anywhere near the bookcases):

    "They had flown from London to Minneapolis to look at a toilet." Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

    "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

    "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book." A Series of Unfortunate Events - Lemony Snicket

    and just to finish on the note I started with...

    "Had I known my mother was being given electroconvulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouses or tied my shoes or located my homework." Sights Unseen - Kaye Gibbons

    Am wondering what gems I'd find if I did hit the bookcases. Hmm... maybe once I've finished all my work :-)

  6. Hey Sharon

    Sorry to get to you late. Had to drive down to Auckland today. Thanks so much for the Dick Francis beginnings. I've always meant to read his books. One of my dearest friends is a HUGE fan. I'll have to get one of his books now.

    As for Sue Grafton's beginning - very entertaining and immediately relate-able to!

  7. Hi Rach

    Fabulous to see the inimitable SE Phillips head this line-up. I love her books but especially Natural Born Charmer and Breathing Room. I really enjoyed the other two examples you provided. They do make me realise I don't spend nearly enough time on my first page - let alone the opening lines....

    Michelle, loved your contributions too. Thanks so much. Yay to see another Hornby - I still haven't read this book.

    I also really like the lilting phraseology of Plath's opening - it's almost musical, isn't it.

    Alice gave me a bit of a zap - the "ouch" factor, with its matter-of-fact tone.

    Reading all the examples added today, I realise that while openings often entertain, they can also challenge dearly-held beliefs, overturn expected responses or presage awful things to come.

    How lucky we are to have such gifted writers out there.

  8. Great post Zana! You're right, the first lines have to (should) be catchy to snare the reader. Here's some great first lines from some of my favourite authors:

    Vertical by Joseph Garber: On the morning of the day he disappeared, David Elliot awoke, as he did every weekday, at precisely 5:45 A.M.
    The Nekkid Truth by Nicole Camden: My cell phone rang just as my date for the evening leaned over to kiss me.
    The Wilder Shores of Love by Madeleine Ker: He must have been standing in the street all the time she was in the dealer's house, though she hadn't noticed him.
    Believe it or not, the last one is a presents (though aged now loL!)

  9. I'm coming to this party a bit late and most of my favourites have already been given. So as a different slant - I can remember that start of a category romance that I loved, but don't remember the name of the book or the author. It went something like "I didn't mean to marry them both..." How about that for making you want to read more?!

  10. Coming tremendously late back to the party (I've been away) but delighted to see some more fabulous starters posted. Thanks Mel and Susan. And Susan, which one did she stay with?!