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?