One of the best-known opening lines has got to be “Call me Ishmael.” I confess I have never read ‘Moby Dick’, nor do I have any desire to, but, honestly, who doesn’t know that line?
When I’m writing, I try not to obsess about the opening, especially not while working through the first few drafts, something I was guilty of while writing my first two books. As that habit brought the whole writing process to a complete halt, I’ve worked hard to break it.
Back when I was trying to get traditionally published and doing the rounds with agents for my second book, ‘Moon Goddess’, one of my many rejection letters advised me to change the opening. So, I ditched the description of the weather and the scenery – a big ‘no-no’, by the way! – rearranged a couple of scenes and opened with the voice of the protagonist.
Once I decided on that change, 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.
I realised, once the novel is complete, it can then be viewed in its entirety, making it easier to decide where and what the beginning should be.
I don’t know how the greats come up with attention-grabbing opening lines, but I do know I love collecting them even though I haven’t read them all. Here’s a selection of some great ones.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” ~ ‘The Good Soldier’, Ford Madox Ford.
“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.
“Death was driving an emerald-green Lexus.” ~ ‘Winter Moon’, Dean Koontz.
What are your favourite opening lines?