Opening Lines

There’s no denying it: the opening line has a special place in literature, mostly because of its task: it has to build a transition for the reader, to submerge him in the world of fiction.

It does for fiction what a movie trailer does for film. You know what to expect, you catch a glimpse of what the book will be like. Great openings set the tone for the story.

“All that I write was once real life.”

                                                   Max Blecher

This is one of my favorite openings. It’s from The Shining Burrow, Max Blecher’s last novel. I find it a fascinating opening line, because Blecher was sick most of his life; he died young, at the age of 29, and all his novels are autobiographical. This adds a different dimension to his line.

I genuinely believe that it’s a very important to know as much as possible about an author before reading his work; you can see themes and motives and influences. And more importantly, it makes connecting with his words a much easier task.

But let’s get back to opening lines. Some writers go for a strong beginning, something that would effectively force the reader to read the next sentence. A very short, grabby sentence.

Much like Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Or maybe Toni Morrison’s Paradise, “They shoot the white girl first.” I’m a big fan of these type of opening lines, short and witty. Albert Camus’s Stranger has another great opening, “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

In the same manner as Camus, Nabokov in Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.“) and Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground (“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”) manage to grab a reader’s attention from the start.

The opening line can also be a statement, something that offers a cold definition of the world the story is anchored in (Fahrenheit 451, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984), or something much simpler than that. It can be the key to solving the story’s most subtle of riddles. Who knows? Some writers even cut to the chase, like Kafka did in Metamorphosis (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”)

There are many ways to start a story or novel. Mid-action, with a witty line, even with a line of dialogue (though I’m not a big fan of opening a story with a line of dialogue Salman Rushdie did it particularly well in Satanic Verses, “”To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”” )

A story can begin with a description of a setting or a character, a fictional entry from a journal, it can start with someone dying, someone already dead, someone ready to die or to kill. It can shock, it can smooth the way for the reader, slowly making him suspend disbelief.

Hector Yanover, director of the National Library of the Argentine Republic, composed a list of such famous opening lines. I do keep one myself. Maybe because I want to keep intact the feeling I got when I read that novel, so by reading again the opening line, I can feel again. Characters, plots, situations, all that, fade away in time, but the feeling we got when we first read a story, that’s,  like they say in Mastercard commercials, priceless.

I have to admit that I’m a bit obsessed with openings. I want to write the perfect one, the one that will force anyone to read on. In The Writer, I tried to start every chapter with some ridiculous, bizarre statement. Some are pretty nice, like the opening from the first chapter: “The only thing that is worth remembering, and worth remembering over and over again, is that in this world, under all and any circumstance, nothing ever happens.” Another chapter begins with: “My life began with a death.  As selfish as it seems, it’s nothing but true.”

Maybe opening lines are not integral to a story’s success – after all, there are bad stories with great openings, and great stories with not so memorable first lines.

What are your favorite opening lines?

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28 comments on “Opening Lines

  1. jeansasson says:

    I agree with you about “opening lines.” I’ve always taken the writing of that first line seriously, wanting readers to find themselves in the mind of my heroine. One of my first lines was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper as one of the top five best opening lines of the year’s crop of books: I had written the story of Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (the first wife with her 4th born son, Omar), titled: GROWING UP BIN LADEN. The first line written was: “I was not always the wife of Osama Bin Laden.” I wanted the reader to long to know more about Najwa and the fact she had her hopes and dreams long before marrying Osama, although she married at an early age.

    Another favorite of my books was in PRINCESS: A TRUE STORY OF LIFE BEHIND THE VEIL IN SAUDI ARABIA. That line was: “In a land where kings still rule, I am a princess.” This lets my readers know right off the bat that they are reading about a princess in a land where kings still rule.

    I’m currently writing a book, and I’m at the moment feverishly working on that “first line” which I hope will strike readers and make them want to dig into the book.

    Thanks for writing about such an important point for all writers — it’s nice to hear about this from another writer.

    • azahzah says:

      Enjoyable article indeed – what a pleasant coincidence that I have just finished reading Jean Sasson’s Arabic version of “Princess: A True Story…” The translation was excellent and the book provided a rare window on the lives of upper class women inside the Saudi society. Looking forward to Jean’s upcoming book.

  2. aliciasunday says:

    From childhood I have always remembered “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”. I obviously felt sorry for Amy in Louisa M Alcott’s ‘Little Women’. I certainly read on.

  3. marymcavoy says:

    “Call me Ishmael.” Just writing it here takes me back to when I was perhaps 15 and I first began to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In over 40 years those three words have never left my mind. They have a power that holds the whole story.
    As soon as I read that opening line, I was a goner – though I found the book in many places to be a struggle. Still, I stuck with it and have read it again since. I know it’s that line that hooked me.
    Great post Cristian – thanks!

  4. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

  5. Piscis says:

    I know that there are several I really like, but I guess I can’t claim it’s for memorability, as I’m having trouble recalling any of them on the spot…!

  6. rumadak says:

    “We create our own demons” Iron Man 3 ..absolute favourite.

    and

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice!

  7. Joe G. says:

    “Oh, for a muse of fire.” – Henry V

  8. L.S. Engler says:

    “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

    That’s the opening line of Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” One of my favorite books and easily one of my favorite first lines. The paragraph that follows is beautiful, and the book just sticks with you.

  9. Julxrp says:

    To Be or not to be.. that’s one heck of a question. :P

  10. Julxrp says:

    Its often the case that I sometimes come up with some awesome opening sentences for my posts, but I’m never in front of a computer when I do. When it comes time to post, I can hardly remember it. “The faintest ink is better than the sharpest memory.” In my case, more trustworthy too. :P

  11. In “Solitary Desire,” I began each chapter with a relevant quote.

  12. Jim Murdoch says:

    ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.’ – Iain Banks, THE CROW ROAD

  13. Shahrazad says:

    C.S. Lewis wrote in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

    What could someone have done to deserve that?

  14. Tim Jackson says:

    The first twelve words of A Tale of Two Cities are often quoted — but that sentence goes on for another 107 words and they’re all worth reading.

    I think the first sentence of Anna Karenina is the best first sentence in literature.

    But I’m also partial to these:

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

    “Half an hour north of Jackson on U.S. 49, not far beyond the Big Black River, the casual rolling land gives way to a succession of tall, lush hills, one after another for twelve or fifteen miles.” – North Toward Home by Willie Morris

    “Summer here comes on a like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun.” – Population: 485 by Michael Perry

    I enjoyed this post — thanks for letting us play along.

  15. callofkairos says:

    I like the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time. “It was a dark and stormy night.” I didn’t realize that was an in-joke writer cliche when I was a kid. As an adult, I love what L’Engle did there..

  16. shedoeswrite says:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    :)

  17. muktimasih says:

    Thanks for this post. My most favorite opening lines so far: Scarlet O Hara was not beautiful. But men seldom realized it when caught by her unusual charm as Tarleton Cousins were.

  18. azahzah says:

    I like to mention two of my favorite opening lines. They are both in Arabic originally but I will translate them as follows:

    “Mercy my Lord. Mercy and forgiveness, our Father which art in heaven. Have mercy on me and forgive me, for you know I am weak.”
    Youssef Ziedan – from his novel “Azazeel”.

    “Sem’an Yared has three sisters; Josephine, Mary and Emily. Josephine was kidnapped in 1983 on the dividing line between East and West Beirut. Mary lives in Baltimore. Emily lives in Paris.”
    Rabih Jaber – from his novel “Millis’ Report.”

  19. unknown says:

    Jane Austin, as already stated (good choice). The problem with a great first line is maybe the several thousand others that follow: keeping the standard.

  20. Hm…I don’t quite remember the opening lines that I have read in the past, but still, well-made openings are one of the key parts to an interesting story, alright!

  21. annieorigami says:

    My favourite opening line is “All this happened, more or less.” from Slaughterhouse Five. I think it sets the mood perfectly for the rest of the book and it’s so intriguing.

  22. scottross79 says:

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley, “The Go-Between.”

  23. Alex says:

    The opening line to The Stranger is also one of my personal favorites. I was happy to see it included here!

    Another favorite is from Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

  24. Grace says:

    I agree with you about Lolita. Not only one of the best opening lines, but also one of the best first paragraphs. So lyrical and creative. The book in general was so beautifully written.

  25. Kaycie says:

    In awe of that anrwes! Really cool!

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