Effective Opening Novel Lines

An author the other day posed a question about writing effective first lines. My answer.

I don’t believe there is a single rule that can be applied to writing a compelling first line. That being said, most of the best seem to be short in nature, pithy, and a declaration of sorts, a challenge for the reader to discover within the words that follow something that invalidates the position taken (1,2,6,10), confirm the contrasting statement (3,4,6,8,9), or understand the emotional upheaval (5) of the author’s opening lines. And who the hell knows what Pynchon was writing about.

You have to go down to #33 of the American Book Review to find one that starts with dialogue, something many novice writers like to do and which rarely helps with the context of the story situation.

  1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
  2. 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 (1813)
  3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
  5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
  6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
  7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
  8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) TOP 100 Novel Opening Lines.

Another writer pointed out that great opening lines are over-rated and that the body of the text is what is important, and that what we may “list” as great opening lines are just the opening lines of great novels.

To the average reader, I agree that the “first line” business is over-rated. I’ve never stopped at a first line but have stopped at first paragraphs, pages, and chapters.

To the agents I’ve met, articles I’ve read concerning this aspect of writing, and seen on panels, “first lines” do matter relative to continued reading of a submission from the author. (Admittedly, some of the panel displays might be for show about how quick they are able to judge the value of the material–much like the old game show about naming a song with the fewest notes.) But the prejudice is real. A bad first line IS a death blow in this day and age where there is almost no support for the mid-list author whose sins can be cleansed by in-house editors who spots a diamond in the rough despite a bad opening line.

Another writer suggested that great endings are even more difficult to write and are what will make or break the book.

Great endings are important and indeed a challenge, especially if you want the reader to return for the next book. But as related to great openings, they second or third in comparison to the value of a great opening line. You can have the best ending ever, but if your opening line(s) sucks, few will ever get to that ending, brilliant or otherwise.

My best guideline: Beat every line until it is the best it can be. Make the 1,604th line be as hook worthy as the first line and as compelling as the last line. To paraphrase John Donne: If a line be wothless to the reader, the book is the less.

Two books that might help writers to think about their openings are Hooked by Les Edgerton and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

For compairson and contrast, the opening lines to my novels are:

One Promise Too Many – I was eight-years-old when Mother capture Father’s dimpled smile with her camera just as I had reached for his red hair. The next day, someone murdered him.

A Matter of Faith – In the lulling warmth of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, sweat beaded on the brow of Faith Moreno, the 25-year-ol parish music director.

All of Our Secrets – Terrified, I counted to six, and then begged Heather, “Just Breathe.”

Kill All Cats – I jerked open my front door, not caring if the Grim Reaper or a Girl Scout had interrupted my sleep with insistent knocking.

Write on! Write on!! Brothers and sisters, amen. Write on!!!




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