Thursday, June 30, 2011

Opening lines

For me, the most difficult part of any piece of writing, whether it be a novel or a short story or even my master's thesis, is usually the first line. As all writers do, I want my first line to be attention-grabbing and provocative, something that draws the reader in and propels her to the next line and the next and next. I've spent a lot of time studying what are considered to be some of the best opening lines. I particularly like this list from the American Book Review.

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?


  1. In general opening lines don't seems to stick with me! Except for "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." Kind of like you. Simple. Declarative. Take it or leave. My husband's, on the other hand, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed".

    I tend to not stress over the opening line when beginning a new work. I just go, and when the time comes to edit that's when I really focus on it. However there have been times where it's just "hit" me, and there it is, my first line!

  2. My best work has come from the careful creation of that first line often without a story or character in mind. The rest just evolves around it. Sometimes they are long and other times not. If my first line doesn't do anything for me I find it difficult to move forward. My inspiration:

    "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" - A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

  3. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones; most of the time, the story comes with its first line. One moment my mind is blank and then "pop" I have a character, a voice and an opening scene. I get the first chapter out in record time and then, I can start figuring out the story. *laughs*

    Like you, I prefer short opening lines.

    Some of the favorite opening lines I wrote are:
    "I caught a smell." From The Hunt.
    "I used to be a hero, you know." From The Last Human on Earth.
    (Both short stories are on my blog.)

  4. You've got my favorite two on your list: Orwell's quote and Bradbury's!

  5. Caitlin: I envy you your ability just to begin writing. I really wish I could do that!

    creativeprocrastination: I know exactly what you mean. There have been a few times when I've thought of the first line before I came up with anything else--characters, story, etc., but that doesn't happen to me often. Love the Maclean line!

    Aheila: It's wonderful that your writing process works that way! I wish those first lines came so easily to me. The lines you posted are great! "I used to be a hero, you know" really grabs me. :)

    Scott: Great minds! ;)