Monday, April 18, 2011

O Is For Opening Lines

I'm not going to tell you how to write opening lines. Everyone knows the opening needs to grab readers and hold their attention so I'm not going to lecture. Who am I to tell you how to write an opening line for your WIP? I'll tell you: I'm an unpublished nobody who's a little punch drunk because her beloved Red Sox managed to win two whole games in a row this weekend and in one of those games, her boy Jacoby Ellsbury hit a three run home run. Woo Hoo!

That's right. I said two whole games. In a row. That doubles the number of wins we've had so far this season. It's a mark of how badly the season's going so far if that's what makes me giddy.

The Red Sox don't actually have anything to do with me being an unpublished nobody (even if they are quite the distraction from April through October) but I just really wanted to mention that they won two whole games in a row. We're going to turn it around and we're going to win the World Series! This year is the year!

Again, I find myself digressing. But you should be used to that by now.

So what was I saying? Right...opening lines. The American Book Review published a list of their picks of the 100 Best First Lines from novels (also on their site they have a list of the Top 40 Bad Books and 100 Best Last Lines...check them out!). Some of their choices I expected. Some I'd never heard of. They included:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." --Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

And while it's also a truth universally acknowledged that I am in no way, shape or form a Jane Austen fan, I do like this line. They also included this classic opening:

"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."I --J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye

Again, not a book I was overly fond of (I know, sacrilege!) but an opening I definitely appreciate. The next quote I'm going to use comes from a book I've never heard of but this opening is just wild. Check it out:

"Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation.
" --Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa

I could just go on and on. After all, there are 97 other lines on this list. But don't worry. I'm not going to post the entire list here because that's way too much. But you can check out the entire list on your own here.

I do, however, want to bring up a couple of opening lines that didn't make their list. First and foremost is this one:

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursely, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."
--J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

"This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." --William Goldman, The Princess Bride

And last, but not least, is this:

"There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess-- I'm the guy who can get it for you. Tailor-made cigarettes, a bag of reefer if you're partial to that, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your son or daughter's high school graduation, or almost anything else... within reason, that is. It wasn't always that way."
--Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

Great story. Great movie. I once had a very stubborn student who was very against reading. I gave him this story after learning how much he liked the movie and all of a sudden that kid was getting in trouble for reading in his other classes when he was supposed to be doing class work. I don't know what happened to him after he left our program but I hope he's doing well.

Before I go, I am going to take the opportunity to post the opening lines of my WIPs Effigy and Second Nature. I've worked pretty hard on them and I think they turned out all right. One group of my students read the opening to Effigy once. They read it out loud which was strange but kind of neat. The student who started the reading stopped after the first lines and looked up at me with wide eyes and said, "Whoa! MJ!" I think he meant it in a good way...


Darian Coileáin didn’t mind killing. The sound of a well made blade slicing through flesh and bone didn’t bother him. The blood he wore at the end of a battle washed away as easily as dirt gained from a day of plowing. When others vomited or sobbed over the atrocities they had seen or committed, Darian prepared for the next encounter. He never doubted it would come. King Nathan Maoilriain desired above all else to expand his already great demesne and Darian desired above all else to give his king what he wanted.

And Second Nature:

Death had come to Quatara. It came in the form of two twisted creatures silently slipping through the night cloaked forest. Their names were unknown to the inhabitants here as they were seldom seen in this land and any unfortunate enough to lay eyes upon them were never left in a condition to be able to tell others of the horror they had witnessed. Death was their singular talent and they had come to Quatara to once again practice their art. Someone would die before the dawn.

All right. That does it for me. Now it's your turn. What are your favorite opening lines? Or, post the openings from your own WIPs. Or just let me know that the Red Sox winning the World Series this year is a pipe dream, even if it's only April and there's still plenty of time to stop sucking. Your choice...

Happy Monday, all.


  1. Ha! I did a post on openings ages ago, and funnily enough Potter and Austen were both mentioned as good examples.

    I like both your openings, but I think 'Effigy' pulled me in right away. :)

  2. Effigy left me wanting more. And more. Second Nature is excellent also.

    Go Braves. Ra ra.

    Here's mine from my MG novel I am querying:

    Anna threw open the barn door and smiled at Fancy. Fancy stamped her foot and stuck her head over the stall opening, a greeting Anna loved. Fancy’s mane trembled with excitement and Anna’s hands began to tingle.

    Great post. :-)

  3. There is a lot to be said about opening lines but I am going to flip this to movies. A lot can be said about the opening scene and the first lines that are said in a film.

    For example in Star Wars a new hope everyone remembers watching it for the first time and you see the big star destroyer come overhead for the first time. There is just nothing like that.

    Or in harry potter films when the HP comes on the screen that is always so epic.

    So I agree with you they can leave you with a lasting image for the rest of your life.


  4. Great post. So much to comment on.

    My students have to memorize the first lines of Pride and Prejudice and then talk about the irony laced in Austen's prose.

    Alphabetical Africa is a novel (playfully postmodern) where each chapter uses only the next letter of the alphabet to begin words. As you can see from chapter one, only the A's. Then A's and B's, and so on. Then in the middle of the book, chapter 27 starts going back down the alphabet so the last chapter only uses words starting with A again. Cool? or completely insane? I actually tied to read it once and couldn't make it through chapter one.

    And thanks for sharing Effigy. Great start.

  5. I love both your opening lines! Nice work! And those are some of my fave stories you have listed up there. It's just voice you can't refuse or deny, it sucks you in, which is why they're classics.

  6. Opening lines are always the thing I worry about. I rewrite then over and over.

    My favorite of all time is probably from The Virgin Suicides (it's a little morbid, but it definitely pulled me in.)

    "On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide--it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese--the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."

  7. Opening lines can be easy or hard, depending on how the story comes to you. Great post! I'll be following to see what else you have in store!

  8. Argh, the dreaded first sentence. I am so forgiving of those because great books have not ALWAYS had awesome first sentences but I know they mean everything. Here is mine from my very raw WIP:

    Anyone who has ever attended a Montessori school for a significant length of time knows there is only one effective way to approach a new environment: research.

  9. It's funny because when I'm writing (whether it be a creative writing piece or a blog post) I never know how to start it. I feel like I start most posts with "So, ..." or "Ok, ..." or "As you may recall/As I've mentioned before".

    And I'm shocked that the opening line from Harry Potter and/or Princess Bride was not included! It's a damn shame!

  10. I like your first lines. I read somewhere that the first line really needs to say something about your novel as a whole.
    But I do love a good opening. And I totally did a post on this a while back and used ALL the same ones as you except the one with the alliteration.
    Let me second your opinion on Catcher in the Rye and I missed the Stephen King one, which is a shame, because I LOVE that story, and a lot of what he's written.
    Nice job.

  11. I saw the 100 list too. Some of them I could understand but there were others that I just didn't see the appeal of the first lines. Personal opinion can be fickle that way. I struggle with my own opening lines in the start of the novel and every chapter. I used to like the one from the maybe YA novel I'm rewriting but now have doubts because it's dialogue and might not work to start with dialogue. Even with all the practice I have in starting novels, I still can't figure out which ones actually work as the opening lines.

    Great post for today.

  12. Great thoughts on openings! The more I've thought about it, I think it's way more important for agents, etc. than general readers. I rarely take pause over an opening line in a novel, and couldn't recite to you more than 3 I've ever read. I know subconsciously it probably encourages me to dig in, but I tend to finish any book I start so I'm not sure it holds much sway over me.

    If I had to guess, as far as purchasing goes, I'd say readers are more influenced by back jacket copy than opening lines. That being said, when it comes to queries and agents reading, I think the opening is extremely important to getting them to bite.

    Good stuff as always!


  13. Whoa! Your opening lines are pretty great! I've never read Catcher in the Rye, and probably never will. I will have to go check out the list, thanks for the info!

  14. I love your opening lines. Both of them would have me turning the page!

  15. Great openings, both of them. They sound like my kind of books. And of course the other openings you mentioned are good, too, even if I don't care for either Prejudice or Rye.

    As for the Sox, they're starting to show signs of life... just not on the road. I'd love for them to turn their season around and win it all, but really, as long as the Yanks fall flat I'm happy.