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The sense of a beginning

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, a truly great opening line to a novel is the holy grail for those who read and write for a living.  A beautiful, evocative, powerful first sentence can mean the difference between committing to a 600-page journey or picking up the remote.  The truth is, most novels, even the ones we decree to be masterpieces, don’t have particularly memorable opening lines.

For instance:  “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.”

Or, “When the lights went off, the accompanist kissed her.”

Or, “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

These are the first sentences of three of my favorite novels of the past decade or so.  Solid openers, certainly, but nothing of the caliber of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  I believe that these three books (The Corrections, Bel Canto, and Atonement in case you hadn’t guessed) will become classics (if they haven’t already) despite the fact that Franzen, Patchett, and McEwan didn’t knock it out of the park with their first swing.

I just started reading Gone Girl and because it has been hyped to the heavens by everyone I know who’s read it, I was looking for a brilliant start.  And…it’s fine.  It made me want to keep reading but it didn’t grab me in a vice grip and drag me into the book.  To be honest, it felt a bit forced and writerly.  So far, however, the novel’s terrific and living up to the reviews.

My point, and I do have one, is that the first line doesn’t have to be mind-blowing.  It just needs to be good, intriguing, well written.  It should pique your curiosity even if it doesn’t turn you into a quivering mass of anticipation.  Ah, but the next 90,000 words need to keep you interested.   And, then you can try again—with a stunning closer that stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.

Of course, if that’s all too much trouble, you can do what these folks did and write some truly gruesome first sentences.  They will definitely grab someone’s attention.

What are the first lines from novels you’ve loved that didn’t exactly knock your socks off?  And why did you keep reading anyway?

7 Responses to The sense of a beginning

  1. K Callard says:

    I don’t know what the first line of The Hunger Games is, but I know it didn’t hook me. In fact, I only managed to read three pages before I put it down. Eventually, thanks to peer pressure, I did finish the book. I would even say I enjoyed it, (although not enough to pick up the sequels and re-enter Collins dark world)but it definitely took effort to get into.

  2. It’s pretty hard to knock it out of the park the way so many of the classics did. MOBY-DICK, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and like you mentioned above, A TALE OF TWO CITIES all have memorable openings that are remembered over a century later. I don’t even think it’s a case of them coming first and everything already being done by now, either. They live on partly because they have that elusive hook that compels one to talk of it forever.

    My two favorite novels are SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut and SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson. Both have strong openings, although I suspect the former is the one most people would count as one of the “great” ones. Even then, they’re probably remembering the line of the first chapter (“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”) rather than the true first line in the prologue (“All this happened, more or less.”) Personally, I think it’s the colon that makes the “listen” line work so well; it’s unusual and striking and makes you pay attention.

    The first line of SPIN is “Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.” I find it very evocative, but I also find the first line of ATONEMENT to be so, and it’s not one of the ones you list as the greatest. I guess the best opening line ever isn’t as important if you can still write a strong one and then keep the rest of the novel as gorgeous.

  3. Joelle says:

    I don’t really know of any offhand, but the one line I always remember is: Scarlet O’hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

  4. Oliver says:

    Speaking of McEwan, I liked his opening from ENDURING LOVE. The first paragraph. It wasn’t one particular well-crafted sentence… it was the collective that fueled a wave of subtle horror. Each sentence peeled back just a little more of the picture, and you don’t want to look, but you can’t help wanting to look.

  5. Jude Hardin says:

    I don’t know how far along you are in GONE GIRL, Miriam, but eventually you’ll realize how perfect that first line is. :)

  6. Simone says:

    Okay, “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova is a favorite and it’s first line is definitely blah: “In 1972, I was sixteen – young, my father said, to be traveling with him on his diplomatic missions.”

    “Jane Eyre” is not super impressive: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

    But “High Fidelity” by Nick Hornby hits it right out of the park: “My desert-island, all-time, top five, most memorable split ups, in chronological order:”

  7. ed young says:

    Opening sentences are important, but no dedication to a book wanted me to read it more than this from Twain’s “Roughing It”:

    TO:
    CALVIN H. HIGBIE,
    Of California,
    an Honest Man, a Genial Comrade, and a Steadfast Friend.
    THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED
    By the Author,
    In Memory of the Curious Time
    When We Two
    WERE MILLIONAIRES FOR TEN DAYS.

    How could there not be a great story THERE?!?

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