It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a strong story, must be in want of an enticing opening line.
This is so universally acknowledged, in fact, that it barely needs repeating anymore. But I’m going to anyway.
The first line of your novel/short story/novella/whatever you are working on is what will make your readers keep reading. If they’re not interested right from the start, then they will stop reading fairly quickly.
If that’s not enough to jolt you to attention, then here’s a statistic from the world of traditional publishing: a publisher will usually decide whether or not your manuscript is worth their time within reading the first three pages. Given that you will have submitted your work to them double line spaced, that means you have roughly 800 words not only to grab their attention but hold it as well.
The more you invest into that first sentence, the better. And the best way to do this is to look at some examples of opening line that have really grabbed you.
So, here are some of my favourites to get the ball rolling.
1: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.“
Given that I started this post by paraphrasing this opening line, it would have been rude not to include it in the list. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Jane Austen, I’m sure you will be familiar with this line. In the world of opening lines, this one is nothing short of iconic. So much so that it is often parodied (and not just by me).
Who could forget its use in Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.”
So, what is it about Austen’s opening line that is so effective? First of all, it makes a bold assumption. There are not many things that we would count as ‘universally acknowledged’ but Austen tells us that this is one of them. She then invites the reader to agree with it immediately. “Why, yes of course; a young man in possession of a good fortune must indeed be in want of a wife. What else could he possibly need in his life?”
It also introduces one of the book’s major themes, that of marriage and the social pressures that once came with it (and perhaps even still do).
In making such a bold sweeping statement at the beginning, the reader then assumes that Austen will prove her point with the story that is about to be told. And so, they read on.
2: Lorelei’s Secret – Carolyn Pankhurst
“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to he death.“
From the well known to the lesser known, Carolyn Pankhurst’s 2003 novel makes no less of an impact with its opening line. Here, the entire premise that the book hangs on is stated clearly and concisely in 41 words. The book itself follows Paul Iverson as he investigates his wife’s death and tries to work out what the one witness to the event, their dog Lorelei, actually saw. By stating the premise in the opening sentence, the reader is very quickly brought up to speed on the events leading up to the start of the book and it is that much easier to follow through the rest of the narrative.
3: Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.“
Up until the last word of this sentence, there is nothing particularly eye-catching about it. But how many clocks do you know of that strike thirteen? In the context of what Nineteen Eighty-Four is about, this subtle change at the start of the book is quite in keeping with the idea of revisionist history. By taking something so mundane, and changing it ever so slightly, we are instantly alerted to the fact that this is not the world we are used to, and if we want to learn more about how this society is different from ours, we have to keep reading.
4: I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.“
This may be one of my favourite opening lines to a novel ever. The image it conjures up of someone sat scrunched in a kitchen sink with a pen and paper makes me smile no end. It is presented as normal that the most important thing in the world to do if you are forced to sit in a sink is to write about it. Immediately. And of course, it is; I couldn’t agree more.
In a similar way to Orwell’s clock striking thirteen, Dodie Smith manages to throw the reader off balance by twisting the expectation as to where a person ought to be sitting. The difference here is that the break from the norm, rather than simply piquing our curiosity, also makes us laugh at its absurdity.
Humour is a brilliant tool when it comes to breaking the ice in any situation. Writing is no exception.
5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C. S. Lewis
“There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.“
Again, there is an element of humour in C. S Lewis’ opening to his third instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia (third in terms of publication, not necessarily reading order). But what I have picked this book for is it is an example of a character being introduced quickly into the story. This is particularly effective in this case given that it is part way through a series where several characters are already well established, and we are now meeting someone else for the first time – someone who will be very important to the story.
We are compelled to read on to find out more about this new character, and to find out if he does in fact deserves his name, as Lewis suggests he does.
6: Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landry
“Gordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself.“
In literature, death is a fairly common trigger for events in a story changing suddenly; or, as in this case, starting them in their entirety. It may be that the person who dies has left the main character an inheritance that sets their life on a new an unexpected path. Or they may have been a crucial figure whose death begins a cascade of events that the main character becomes caught up in.
In this instance, Gordon Edgley’s death is a little of both for his niece, Stephanie, the character that a lot of the Skulduggery Pleasant series revolves around (together with Skulduggery himself, of course).
A death right at the start of a book leads the reader to be intrigued as to how this death will colour the rest of the story.
7: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King
“The man in black feld across the desert, and the gunsligher followed.“
Now, I freely admit, much to by best friend’s annoyance, I have not read the Gunslinger in its entirety, and I have not read any of the other books in The Dark Tower series. But this line stands out to me because of how simple and effective it is.
Whatever you think of Stephen King’s work in terms of subject matter, there is no denying that he is a master of his craft. In the opening line to The Gunslinger, he plunges the reader right into the middle of the action. There is no drawn out “Once upon a time…” here. We immediately have two opposing characters and a whole heap of questions: Who are these men? Why is the man in black running? Why is the gunslinger following? Why are they in a desert? And so on.
Pulling the reader straight into the action of your story is a sure-fire way to keep them reading. This also works well if you open your story with dialogue.
8: I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes
“There are places I’ll remember all my life – Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of 8-Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a group of ruins known as the Theatre of Death.“
You don’t necessarily know it from the start, but all of the places listed are very important to the story you are about to read. In listing them like this, Hayes creates a sense of mystery surrounding the narrative character. The four places are so very different – Russia, Detroit, New England, and the ruins known as the Theatre of Death (I won’t spoil where they actually are) – it makes you wonder how they are all connected to one man.
Given that the story that unfolds is a detective/spy thriller, the sense of mystery that is created right out of the gate is quite fitting and sets the tone for everything that is to come.
These are just a handful of techniques and tropes that you can employ for your own opening lines. I’m sure that if you were to peruse your own bookcase and list the opening lines that stand out to you, there will be other things that you notice about them as well.
If you are going to undertake this exercise (which I encourage that you do as it is quite enlightening), here are a few questions to keep in mind as you search:
- How is the mood set with the opening sentence?
- What does it tell me about the story I am about to read?
- What specific word or phrase makes me want to keep reading?
If you start to see trends emerging, try applying them to your own work. It may end up proving to be the making of your story.
1: Jane Austen (1813), Pride and Prejudice – originally published by Thomas Egerton (1813), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2012)
2: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (2009), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Quirk Books, Philadelphia, PA
3: Carolyn Pankhurst (2003), Lorelei’s Secret – Hodder and Stoughton, A division of Hodder Headline, London
4: George Orwell (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four – originally published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd (1949), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2000)
5: Dodie Smith (1949) I Capture the Castle – originally published by William Heinemann (1949), re-printed by Vintage Digital, London (2011)
6: C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – originally published by Geoffrey Bles (1955), re-printed by Harper Collins, London (2008)
7: Derek Landry (2007) Skulduggery Pleasant – Harper Collins, London
8: Stephen King (1982) The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Donald M. Grant Publisher Inc, Hampton Falls, NH
9: Terry Hayes (2012), I Am Pilgrim – Bantam Press, An imprint of Transworld Publishers, London