The opening line of any book needs to be strong, to draw the reader in, and keep her interested enough to want to read your book over the many others awaiting her attention. Although it can be argued that it is imperative to start a novel with the protagonist – after all, that is what any novel is about – most anything can be used to create a strong beginning. A captivating character, a crucial or exciting situation, even superb writing. The ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra works best for an enticing opening; ‘showing’ places the reader right in the moment, along with the protagonist.
A couple of ‘no-no’s – never open with scenery. And avoid backstory; that can be filled in later. My manuscript that’s ‘out there’, waiting to be read, originally opened with scenery, and the weather. One of my many rejection letters advised me to change the opening. So I ditched the description about the weather and the scenery, rearranged a couple of scenes, and opened with the voice of the protagonist.
Don’t get preoccupied with trying to write the ‘perfect’ opening as I don’t think that’s possible until the whole novel has been written. Once I decided I was going to change the opening, the reworked beginning was almost staring me in the face; it would not have been obvious to me if I had tried to ‘find’ it before finishing the novel. Once the novel is complete, it can be viewed in its entirety, making it easier to decide where and what the beginning should be.
On the one hand, it’s not a good idea to obsess about the opening. And yet, the beginning contains probably the most significant words you will write. These are the words that will tell the reader how well you write, how good you are at telling a story, and creating characters. The beginning has to make the right impression to hook your reader.
The book that helped me the most with this – ‘ Hooked’ by Les Edgerton.
Here are a selection of great openings; personally haven’t read them all.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” ~ ‘The Good Soldier’, Ford Madox Ford.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” ~ ‘Lolita’, Vladimir Nabokov.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ~ ‘Anna Karenina’, Leo Tolstoy.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ~ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Charles Dickens.
“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.” ~ ‘Notes From Underground’, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” ~ ‘Neuromancer’, William Gibson.
“My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between me and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” ~ ‘The Autobiography of My Mother: A Novel’, Jamaica Kincaid.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” ~ ‘The Crow Road’, Iain M Banks.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, CS Lewis.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” ~ ‘Back When We Were Grownups’, Anne Tyler.
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” ~ ‘The Color Purple’, Alice Walker.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” ~ ‘The Bell Jar’, Sylvia Plath.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~ ‘The Go-Between’, LP Hartley.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” ~ ‘I Capture the Castle’, Dodie Smith.
“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” ~ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Jean Rhys.
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” ~ ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, Stephen Crane.
“Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” ~ ‘A Frolic of His Own’, William Gaddis.
What are your favourite openings?