Monday, April 2, 2012

You will be judged

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good novel, must be in want of a great opening line.

Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, opening lines may determine the fate of our manuscripts. Unfair as it may seem, agents, editors and readers will often decide whether or not to pursue a novel based on one finicky sentence. (No pressure there.)

An editor once told me that the opening of a book must be unique to that particular story. In other words, it shouldn’t be generic or interchangeable. No other novel should be able to start the same way. But let’s look at what else a good opening line should do:
  1. Hook/intrigue the reader.
  2. Give us a sample of the writer’s prose.
  3. Give us an idea of what genre we’re about to read.
For this week, I propose we look at successful openers and understand why they work.

One of the most widely read Latin American authors, Gabriel García Márquez, is a master at creating compelling openers for his complex novels. Let’s take a look at some of them:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon where his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. (Love in the Time of Cholera)

From these short samples, we can assume that:
  • These books are not comedy material. In fact, they may likely end in tragedy.
  • There will be sense of melancholy and nostalgia throughout the text.
  • They all start at a climactic point in the story where reflection may be everything that is left for these characters.
  • It may take the entire novel to get to this point and understand the circumstances that led the character to this moment.
  • The novel takes place in a Spanish-speaking country.
All this information from just one sentence!

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez
Openers come in all forms: questions, dialogue, statements, descriptions. I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. Some are gripping (the must-continue-reading kind) while others simply intrigued me enough to keep reading (not necessarily finishing the book!)

Drink more than fourteen alcohol units a week.
Waste money on: pasta makers, ice-cream machines or other culinary devices which will never use; books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves; exotic underwear, since pointless as have no boyfriend.
Behave sluttishly around the house, but instead imagine others are watching.
(Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding)

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. (The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (Charlotte's Web by E.B. White)

Paris, July 1942. The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. (Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.)

In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister. (My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult)

Paris: September, 1792. A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. (The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy)

She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked, she selected a bright red negligee to wear so that the blood would not show. (If Tomorrow Comes by Sydney Sheldon.)

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. (The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón)

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

They had a date at eight every night. If it was raining, if it was snowing; if there was a moon, or if there was none. (Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich)

The guilt was like a clump of tar in her hair, warm and sticky, impossible to remove. (A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand)

How young we were the day we escaped. (Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews)

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

His mustache was stiffer than ever, so stiff a fly could have stepped out to the end, like a prisoner walking the plank on a pirate ship. Except that flies can’t survive in a cool room at twenty below zero, and neither could the owner of the blond, frozen mustache: Nestor Chaffino, chef and pastry cook, renowned for his masterful way with a chocolate fondant. (Little Indiscretions by Carmen Posadas)

I'd never given much thought to how I would die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

Impressed by this quick exchange:

A mutter.
“Wake up now, Sally.”
A louder mutter: leeme lone.
He shook her harder.
“Wake up. You got to wake up!”
Charlie’s voice. Calling her. For how long?
Sally swam up out of sleep.
First she glanced at the clock on the night table and saw it was quarter past two in the morning. Charlie shouldn’t even be here; he should be on shift. Then she got her first good look at him and something leaped up inside her, some deadly intuition. (The Stand by Stephen King)

The idolized Stephen King

By popular demand:

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. (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun by James Clavell)

One of the things I found while doing research for this article is that despite the “It was a dark and stormy night” cliché-alert throughout the internet, writing manuals and conferences, several successful novels start with weather descriptions:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. (Peyton Place by Grace Metalious)

It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. (A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick)

The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide front porch. (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards)

The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. (Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann)

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 by Stephen Crane)

Ever noticed how when something dramatic is about to happen in fiction, the weather is either exceptionally hot or exceptionally cold? The ultimate extreme of this “phenomenon” is Camus’s The Stranger. But that is subject for another post. Has any of these openings intrigued you enough to want to read the book? Can you think of other examples you like? In your opinion, what are the essential elements of a good first line? Are you brave enough to share your own with us?


  1. This great post is the right post in my life at the right time. Thanks!

  2. Hmm...First lines are always a pain when it comes to making them really good. I noticed that in a couple of your examples you tacked on the opening date and place. Does this always get included with that first line to hook in the reader? I use date and place at the beginning of my novels, but it surprises me how many readers say that don't notice that small part with the intro and they end up flipping back to see if it was ever mentioned.

    Many that you mention are really good, but I'd have to say one of all time favorites is "Charlotte's Web."

    1. I also love the opening of Charlotte's Web, Sister Mary. The good thing is the rest of the novel doesn't disappoint. I think it's such a clever story. (BTW, I've had the same problem with my novel. People often forget when/where it takes place :-))

  3. Like all of us aspiring writers, I have heard (ad nauseaum) about the importance of opening lines. Sister Lorena has selected a crop of the finest first words. All of them have become golden examples of fine prose, but how many of us have actually read those classics based on those first lines? And how many of us have given up on a book because the first line/ first paragraph didn´t hook us? If first lines were that important to the reader (obviously they are crucial to agent/publisher) we would not forget them. I love Stephen King’s The Stand and I didn’t recognize that opening dialogue. I didn´t even remember that it began with a dialogue.
    I read Peyton Place, Gone with the Wind and many other loved books because of their covers or the bullet inside the jacket, or because they were based on a hit film, but never because of the opening paragraph.
    One of my favorite lines is this:
    "This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened." (Pail Scott’s The Raj Quartet)
    What´s funny is that Scott didn’t bother to start his novel with that powerful sentence. He just inserted it somewhere near the bottom of the first page.

  4. I was reading with muted response all of the openings except for B. Jones -- which is still hilarious -- when I arrived at Salinger. I would kill for another novel of that quality, for another voice that goes straight up in my ear making me take the book with me and hold it at arm's length while I shower, miffed by the shampoo in my eyes obscuring the words on the page.

    The only other standout for me was Crane. Frankly, a lot of the other openers read to me like trying too hard. I'm wondering if I've become jaded, or if I've always been this way. Fiction, for me, has to be so specifically phenomenal. So arrestingly clever. I hardly ever see it and that's the truth.

    I am mixed, though, on my judgment of the opening line of 'Love in the Time of Cholera.' It is the kind of story I would not want to read for fear of being tempted to scratch my own eyes out at some point, but there is something about the visceral connection of something as singular as almonds and what is truly bitter -- the memory of unrequited love.

    Superb post, L.

    1. I have a copy of "Love in the Time of Cholera" in English if you want to take a look. It's one of my favorite novels.

  5. The only opening I remember, almost word for word is the sad plea of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. It attracts the disenchanted, sets set the tone for the entire book, and follows through with the promise.
    I looked at a few first lines, ( or paragraphs) of Dickens, on Invariably, they portend some impending event, ominous or not. The subject has been on my mind. My present opening is a hook, but it doesn't pertain sufficiently to the overall theme of the book. Without the permission of a couple of readers, I won't reveal it. A great post. Regis

    1. Now you've made me curious about your opening, Regis. Who do I have to persuade to read it? :D

    2. You asked for it, Lorena. Read it and cringe. I am trying, not only to provide a 'hook', but to briefly show the theme and era of the book. From about ten versions, (none of which satisfy me completely), I selected this:

      By the age of eighteen, I thought I knew just about everything, except for being able to guess what crazy thing a girl was going to do next. I’d had eight years to figure it out, ever since the shakeup of March tenth, 1934; and my first foray into the realm of the feminine mystique. I was ten years old. That day, I fell under permanent surveillance by the San Sebastian Police Department; but I entered a new, and wonderful phase of my life. I met Jo.

    3. I was waiting for some brave soul to postulate his/her opening paragraph first. If Regis was man enough, Violante can’t do less. These are some samples of my opening lines.

      1. “Never underestimate the power of curses,” my father advises me, “In this family we don’t take maledictions lightly.”
      What His Majesty means is that living under a curse is a family thing for us.

      A solitary moonbeam came through the window, providing the only light in the room. As far as I knew, it could be the only light in the world. Shadows cloaked the entire clinic, and Vienna had become a city of darkness. On that isolated lighted spot, I stood, barefooted, shaking with cold and fear, my eyes glued to the door waiting for the next knock. The man who murdered my mother stood on the other side. Tonight, he had come for me.

      3. (This may sound a bit clunky because it was originally written in Spanish and my translation is slightly rudimentary)

      I don´t know much about my origins. As time went on, I learned a little about them. Time, Reader is nothing but a chimera invented by men to dominate one another. My birth date, and the details surrounding it, is of no importance. All that matters is that my life began the moment I first heard of Maria Hebrea and her many Gates.

    4. Thank you both for sharing, and Regis, thanks for being brave enough to post first (braver than me, ha ha).

      I think your beginning accomplishes what you set out to do. It definitely sets the tone for your setting and tells us that this is going to be a coming-of-age story (one of my favorite genres). That last sentence ("I met Jo") would intrigue me enough to keep reading.

      Sister Violante, these are all intriguing. Have I read book #2? Because I don't remember the opening and it's extremely compelling!

    5. It was the final opening lines for Venefica. You did approve it but then I gave up on that book.

  6. I love your nod to Austen in your own opening line, Ms. Lorena. :) Although Violante and I famously and affectionately disagree on most everything, I could have written her post. :) The number of novels I've bought based on first lines, I can count on zero hands. I can appreciate them in retrospect, but the only reader to whom they seem to matter is an agent, and this says something about the divide between the agent and the audience.

    An opening line that might make a difference is a terrible one. If it's obviously badly written, I won't bother going further. But since I tend to pick books by literary writers anyway, this doesn't happen often. I think time spent fussing over opening sentences could be (almost certainly is) better spent worrying over other things.

    That said, it's so much fun, as *readers* to look through the opening lines of fabulous novels and compare/contrast. Or remember. Or admire. I really enjoyed your overview, Lorena!

    1. Famous first, Sister Stephanie! I didn’t mean to sound dismissive, I am not insensitive to good prose, and some of those opening lines qualify as such, but I can’t imagine anybody reading or rejecting a book based on an opening paragraph (last chapters yes, but fist chapter? Hey, you could always skip it)
      I wonder why agents think opening lines are that important.

    2. Dear Sisters,

      I admit being one of the readers who looks at the opening lines of a book to determine whether or not I'm going to read it. But I also look at the title, cover and blurb (first). A recent example of an opening that didn't grab me but I still read and enjoyed the novel is Revolutionary Road.

      I agree with both of you, though, that a good (or bad) opening doesn't guarantee the quality of the book. I won't reveal which ones, but some of the novels in this article didn't keep my interest for the entire book. ;)

      Honestly, I'm relieved to see that not everyone is focused on this detail and it may be a whim of some industry professionals (but, hopefully, not all).

      BTW, Sister Steph. I still remember the opening line of your book. Good stuff!

  7. I didn't know that agents put such importance in a novel's opening lines! Seems to me a bit radical honestly. First chapters are another thing. Well, you learn something new every day.

    Lore, I agree with your assessment of GGM's mastery of opening lines. I really don't know how he does it, but he's brilliant!

    At the moment, the only first lines that come to my mind aren't even found in a novel, but in a literary/philosophy essay I love, Anne Carson's "Eros the Bittersweet". Here it goes:

    "It was Sappho who first called eros 'bittersweet'. No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?" It was enough to hook me in!

    1. Dear Lone Wolf,

      That's a great opening line! It made me want to read, too.

      I can't say that *all* agents are that way, but it seems to be the case for many. Some only want to read the first 250 words of a novel to decide if they're going to request more (some don't even want pages, just the query letter.) It's a very difficult business to break into.

      Thanks for stopping by! Un abrazo.


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