I tend to gravitate toward simple, declarative sentences. I love very short, very succinct opening lines, ones that are powerful and dynamic in their simplicity. These are my favorites from the American Book Review's list:
- "A screaming comes across the sky." —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
- "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
- "I am an invisible man." —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
- "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)
- "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
- "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
- "They shoot the white girl first." —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
- "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) [This one is a particular favorite of mine.]
- "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
- "It was the day my grandmother exploded." —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
- "Elmer Gantry was drunk." —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)
- "It was a pleasure to burn." —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
- "In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street." —David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)
- "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
- "When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson." —Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)
- "Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash." —J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)
- "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
- "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)
I haven't read all of these novels, but their opening lines draw me, making me curious about what happens and eager to read more. All of them are intriguing; all, to me, present a mystery--and a promise--to the reader. Each of them does exactly what a first line should do.
Opening lines can be difficult to write; so, of course, can opening paragraphs, opening pages, and opening scenes. What's your remedy if writing that first line proves difficult? Some writers freewrite, sometimes about anything but their novels, in the hope of inadvertently hitting upon the perfect beginning. Some lucky writers I know (I wish I were one of them) can simply skip the beginning entirely and go on to a different scene, returning to the opening when inspiration strikes. Others just have to keep working doggedly on that first line until they get it right. For better or worse, that's the category I fall into: if I don't have the first line, I can't write the story. Whatever the method of finding that first line, one important thing for all writers to remember is that even if the first line ultimately gets thrown out, it still served its purpose: it got the writing started.
Tell me about your opening lines. Do you have any that you're particularly proud of or perhaps ones that came to you easily or out of the blue? And what do you do when you begin a story and your muse refuses to cooperate?