So a couple of folks expressed interest in how to write an effective opener for a novel.
To which I say, “good luck.”
And then I supply links LIKE THIS, which have the alleged “100 best first lines from novels”, posted by the American Book Review site. I must say, Iain M. Banks’ line from The Crow Road is a grabber: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Hit that link at Amazon and you’ll be able to read the first few pages to determine what that’s about.
At any rate, what makes a great opening line? Well, I’d say that’s a topic up for debate, depending on a reader’s taste. But overall, let’s try to dissect what makes a great first line in terms of writing craft. Here are five things to think about.
And not necessarily the physical setting in which a story is going to be playing out. Rather, what kind of image is that first line conveying? It needs to be vivid, and stick in your head. Back to Banks’ “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Good gracious me, the reader thinks. Grandmother exploded? How is this possible? Did she literally explode, and fling bits and pieces all over the room? Or did she explode in anger? What is going on here? I must find out more! So you keep reading.
Banks’ sentence is seven words long. And yet it conveys multiple images, some macabre, some comical, but it also instills in the reader the desire to find out more, and to determine just what Banks means.
Here’s another opener, with imagery tied to setting:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. — Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
A reader envisions what might be a lovely spring day, as the cold releases its grip on the earth, leaving that spring fog behind that you see in some climates. But then the fog lifts even more, and the reader is treated to a panorama of an army stretched out on the hills, resting in the quiet. We’re smack in the middle of a war-time respite. What war? Whose army is this? And where are they? How are they able to rest? What awful things have they endured? We want to know more about this snapshot — and that’s what this sentence is, a verbal photograph — so we read on.
Different use of imagery. Here’s the opening sentence to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
There are several different imageries at play here, not to mention the fact that the character has just said she was born twice. But how about “Smogless Detroit day,” which makes one conjure up visible images of Detroit and conveys that it may be a clear day of sorts. But we don’t know for sure. We also have a couple of years. 1960 and 1974, so we then have a historical point of reference, as well as a definite place in the second birth. So we do have some setting references which help us with time and place. But that’s not a requirement for an opening line. So look again at the Banks line and the Eugenides line. Because there’s another element in there that makes for a great opening line. And that is…
A great opening line provides a sense of the “voice” of the character(s) to the reader. What is “voice”? That’s a whole other blog, but for now, consider it in this case the unique way a character is going to engage with the reader through the story.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
When you write first-person POV, there’s more leeway to use a string of adjectives and adverbs, because through 1st-person, you’re directly addressing the reader. Like you’re looking right at the reader and saying, “I didn’t know what I was doing there.” “It was hot. Not just hot. Sultry. And queer. Strange. I remember that summer because that’s the summer the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, so it was all over the news.”
Like that. Like she’s telling you this story. And now you, too, want to know what she was doing in New York and why she thought she might not belong.
Here’s another example of first-person POV:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” — Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
This is an engaging voice, a sly voice, and a young voice. He uses the term “ain’t,” which is indicative of a variety of things, including class, age, and region. There’s also a little subtext, in which the character takes a little dig at Mark Twain, his writer. It’s a folksy, down-home voice, and now the reader is wondering what this character is going to talk about, and whether or not Mr. Mark Twain will tell the truth — mostly — about him.
Let’s have a look at 3rd-person POV:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. — Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
What the WHAT? The only thing you can surmise here about this gentleman’s setting is his bed. But the imagery of him as a “monstrous vermin” creates all kinds of thoughts in the reader’s head. VERMIN? What? How did this happen? What kind of vermin? How will this resolve? The voice, here, is sort of a collusion between the author and the character of Gregor. It’s sort of a formal voice, and matter-of-fact, as if we’re reading this account in the news.
We don’t really get a sense of Gregor just yet, except that he had “uneasy dreams,” so perhaps something was upsetting him, causing such dreams. What we do know is that he is no longer human, at least in his mind, and we want to find out how this unfolds. In one sentence, Kafka managed to name his character, give the reader a sense of his unease, and that he has a huge dilemma facing him. It’s a juxtaposition, this “just the facts” voice telling about this terrible thing that has befallen Gregor. And in that regard, it keeps us reading.
So what else can make a great opening first line?
3. Humor and Surprise
These two are often linked, according to Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice. I think he’s right. Here are a couple from Carl Hiaasen.
Mickey Cray had been out of work ever since a dead iguana fell from a palm tree and hit him on the head. — Carl Hiaasen, Chomp
On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. — Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey
The first involves absurdity with potential harm, but the absurdity creates a humorous image, as the reader envisions an iguana plopping onto someone’s head, like those shows in which people do nutty things in videos that also make you wince because, ow. But that sentence opens more questions. Is the guy out of work because the iguana hurt him? Or…? How are these two events linked? And who is Mickey Cray? What’s the deal with the iguana? We read on to find out.
In the second, well, holy crap, there you are fishing and you catch something totally unexpected. SURPRISE! HUMAN ARM in today’s catch! That’s shocking, and like Kafka, Hiaasen reports it in a sort of “just the facts” kind of way. It’s sly, it’s dry, but the makings of a great story. Whose arm is it? What will Mayberry do? How will he deal with this? And is he going to continue to be part of this story? We read on to find out.
He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. — Virginia Woolf, Orlando
The “fashion of the time.” That tells us that the fashion is probably more feminine than we might expect, so perhaps this is a historical perspective. And indeed, reference to a “Moor” further tells us this is a possibility. So who is this guy? And why the hell is he slicing at a SURPRISE head? And why is the head hanging from the rafters in the first place? The element of surprise — we start out with one view and then BAM we get something entirely unexpected — hooks us on the opening line.
And, opening a novel with dialogue can be funny and surprising:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. — Rose Macauley, The Towers of Trebizond
This line had me at “camel, dear” and then “High Mass.” Who is this Aunt Dot, who rides camels to High Mass? She must be someone I want to know, because that is a great image. So yes, it is perfectly fine to open a novel with dialogue. As long as it works.
What else might hook a reader in a first line?
Or, rather, truth within the context of a story.
Elmer Gantry was drunk. — Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
Truth. Gantry is drunk. No two ways about it. So why is he drunk? And who is he? How does being drunk fit into the story? We read on to find out.
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. — William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
Truth: noon that Sunday, and the sheriff had just gotten to the jail with Lucas Beauchamp. Perceived truth: Beauchamp is responsible for the death of a white man, which, because it’s specified that the dead man is white, probably means that Beauchamp isn’t. So the question is, did Beauchamp actually kill the guy? If so, what were the circumstances? If not, is he going to face punishment for something he didn’t do? And how will the dead man’s race affect what Beauchamp faces?
It’s a simple statement, actually. Noon that Sunday. Could be any Sunday. But then the reader gets another detail. The sheriff arrives at the jail with a prisoner. The prisoner is known throughout the county and believed to be a killer. So there’s an element of surprise in this opener, as well as a reporting of events.
So how about another element that makes a great opener?
Many of the openers I’ve provided here thus far can involve one or more of these elements. The opener to Elmer Gantry, for example, is clear, right? There’s clarity there. It’s like the opener for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.”
Or how about this opener:
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. — Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
BAM. We’re talking about time. And in this narrator’s view, it’s not a straight line. It’s not a line at all. It’s something that has qualities like dimensions in space. This opener gives us some insight to the character and how she’s going to take us on this journey. So we read on to find out why the character feels that and how she’s going to demonstrate it.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. — George Eliot, Middlemarch
How about that clarity AND imagery? The first two words of the opener tell us that the character is a woman and we’ve got at least her surname. We also get a sense that she’s beautiful. Or at least stands out, and that poor dress only emphasizes this quality, which is a great turn of phrase. Of course, we don’t know at this line whether the author is being snarky or not, so we read on to find out if it’s true, what is being said about Miss Brooke, and how that affects her character. We also want to find out more about this Miss Brooke and where this story will lead her and us.
They shoot the white girl first. –Toni Morrison, Paradise
Concise. But look at how loaded and layered and fraught that first sentence is. Somebody, plural, shot the white girl first. Which means there was more shooting/killing after her, indicated by Morrison’s use of the word “first.” And again, using a term like “white” in this context means there’s something telling about race going on here, and we want to read on to find out who these people are, doing this shooting, and what the larger context is for such violence, especially since the first person they shot was a girl. Not a woman. Morrison was clear to use the term “girl,” which means this is a special, horrible kind of violence. The kind in which children are targeted.
First lines that work are thus almost micro-novels. They tell a story using very few words, but a reader gets a sense of the kind of story this will be, the voice of the character/author, and maybe even gets a sense of tone, setting, tension, and dilemma. There are tons of different approaches you can take in an opening line, but ultimately, the line needs to be a feeder for the story. It sets the tone, if you will. It’s like a doorway, and doesn’t have to be action-packed to make a reader want to cross the threshold.
Let’s try an exercise. Witness below the three possible openers for a novel:
Jamison Flendergast withdrew his blade from the quivering flesh and checked the time.
Jamison Flendergast examined the quivering flesh in the microscope and checked the time.
Jamison Flendergast lovingly caressed the quivering flesh and checked the time.
See how that works? I didn’t change much, keeping the character, quivering flesh, and the character’s penchant for checking the time. But note how very different the tone of each is, and how very different the genres might be, and how very different Flendergast’s character is, depending on what the second sentence might be.
So, yes. An opening sentence is part of a hook for a reader. But it’s also a doorway, and your job as an author is to make a reader want to go through it with you and your characters. But you have to ensure that your opener feeds effectively into your story, and that it matches the overall type of story it is.
Possibilities are endless, friends. Any approach can work. Irony, humor, grim, surprise, understated, clear. And it’s okay during the course of your writing to maybe re-tool your opener. I always start with a draft opener and tinker with it later on, as the story takes shape. It depends how you work as a writer that helps determine how you will approach both your story and your opener.
Some linkie dinkies:
100 best opening lines, American Book Review
30 great opening lines in literature
The 50 best first sentences in fiction
Authors on their favorite opening lines
7 keys to writing the perfect first line (this post helped me refine my thinking on this matter)
7 ways to create a killer opening line for your novel
There you go!
Happy writing, happy reading!
Great blog! Thank you!
Awesome. If you ever consider teaching writing at the college level you really should include this blog in your resume. You had me from the title as my favorite Peanuts cartoons involved Snoopy sitting in front of his typewriter writing those very words. Very informative.
If you’re interested, there’s a contest inspired by that line, which was originally penned by novelist and playwright George Bulwer-Lytton, who also created all kinds of other things that we still say: “the great unwashed”, e.g. The line about the dark and stormy night appears as the opener for Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, 1830.
Anyway, the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Prize winners are at THIS LINK.
The contest celebrates overwrought, dramatic, and over-the-top opening lines.
Thanks for reading!
It’s also the opener of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Of course, a great opening line is no guarantee the book will be read. Still haven’t read Paradise and I’ve read that line many times. 🙂