They sure do like to rush the sequels these days. Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2: The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again. As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008! Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line. They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back. I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.
I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form!
Here are some of my findings:
Case #1 : The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
- Opening Line: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
- Thoughts: Right from the get go, you start imaging the tortured internal struggles of a narrator trying to “tell a story.” As a writer, I found this to be a brilliant opening line. There are hints just in this sentence (coupled with the knowledge of the book’s title) that this will be no ordinary love story and the plot will probably not unfold in a linear fashion as there will be looking back and looking ahead. Greene let’s the reader know instantly what we are getting into, and that the one telling the story is choosing what we will know and not know, so beware.
- Conclusion: HOOKED!
Case #2: Jazz by Toni Morrison
- Opening Line: “Sth, I know that woman.”
- Thoughts: Immediately I felt like I was about to sit down with an angry woman to hear some seedy gossip. I want to know “that woman” too. Morrison puts the reader right into the middle of an ongoing conversation…one that as the book progresses becomes increasingly more lyrical, twisted and riffed on by different characters picking up their instruments of words. Sing it, sister. I’m listening.
- Conclusion: HOOKED!
Case #3: An Accidental Man by Iris Murdoch
- Opening Line: “Gracie, darling, will you marry me?”
- Thoughts: Again we have a female author opening with a dialogue of sorts, this one between two characters instead of a narrator and reader (as was the case with Morrison). Is this going to be the central conflict? A man proposing marriage? Is that interesting enough in and of itself to hook you? This does fittingly let a reader know this is going to be a novel loaded with dialogue, and it’s only later when your realize, Murdoch was a master at this “talk” game.
- Conclusion: It’s daring to open with characters engaged in dialogue. There wasn’t enough in just this line to hook me completely…but admittedly I did “kinda wanna” know…would Gracie accept? Eh, I’ll read on.
Case #4: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
- Opening Line: “Hot, thought the Parisians.”
- Thoughts: There’s not much in just the opening line, though it hints this is a writer who will be speaking for many people/characters, possibly all at once. What is striking is its brevity. So succinct. And the lines that follow: “The warm air of spring. It was at night, they were at war and there was an air raid.” There’s a “storm” building here, and Nemirovsky captures it with lighting quick clarity.
- Conclusion: Sometimes it’s not the opening line…but how the next lines build upon it and the totality and structure of the opening passage that hooks you. But, oh, Nemirovsky…you had me at “Hot.” Consider me hooked.
Case #5: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Opening Line: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
- Thoughts: Ah, Harper Lee, the simplicity and perfection of your story-telling techniques. Right here, no doubt about it, the reader knows this is going to be a story about childhood…memories…the things that marked our lives. I remember reading this in high school and wanting to know right away, how did Jem break his arm? How could you not keep reading?
- Conclusion: Yeah, tell me more, Harper, I’m hooked.
Case #6: Serena by Ron Rash
- Opening Line: “When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was the young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child.”
- Thoughts: Whoa…is this a sequel? Rash goes the old “expository” route and tries to fit in as much background as possible with this somewhat bloated by oh so intriguing opening line. What hooked me was what followed, the description of that girl’s knife wielding father.
- Conclusion: Sometimes it’s the threat of violence that follows a somewhat innocuous statement of facts that hook a reader. Again, as with the more succinct Nemirovsky, Rash lures us in with the totality and structure of his opening passage and proves it’s not just the first line that matters.
Case #7: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
- Opening Line: “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”
- Thoughts: Hmmm…makes you wonder…is this a novel or a philosophical tome? Vonnegut displays the importance of word placement as the “now” before the “knows” clues a reader into the speculative fiction aspect of the story that is about to be told.
- Conclusion: There’s going to be some stretches of the imagination, but yeah, Kurt, you got me. I’m coming back for sure.
Case #8: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (my current read)
- Opening Line: “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.”
- Thoughts: Only in conjunction with the chapter title, “Under the Logs” can a reader divine what is about to happen in the next few lines. Irving shows a great confidence here. To him, it seems, the most important thing is not showing-off with a killer opening line, but telling the story the way it should be told.
- Conclusion: It wasn’t until Chapter Two that I really became hooked, and this comfortably sits on my coffee table as my current read.
Case #9: My very own, The Thief Maker
- Opening Line: “William Donovan was an eleven-year-old boy living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and two younger siblings in Camden, New Jersey, when his world ended.”
- Thoughts: I clearly had some grand intentions here. I wanted to introduce the protagonist, set the time and place, and pull a sucker-punch with “…his world ended.” Strangely enough, this was not originally the opening line or even the opening chapter. This “flashback” chapter was added about half way through the 1st draft when I feared readers would not sympathize as easily with the Alice character (whose story opens what would become Chapter Two) as they would with a look back on William’s tragic childhood. But sometimes I wonder…did I reveal too much too soon and did I end up short-changing William, Alice and my readers?
- Conclusion: You be the judge. If I hooked you…read on.
Of course, sometimes opening lines don’t even matter…it’s all about the title. Take for instance the recent string of books that takes Jane Austen novels…and well, updates them a bit…
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters?
What more of a hook do you need!? And where are the film adaptations already!? Funny I should ask, as I just heard Natalie Portman is in talks to bring P&P&Z to the big screen!
But back to the case in point…
What are the opening lines to your favorite novels? Speak out and speak up in the comment form.
Thanks to all the writers (past, present and future) who have inspired and entertained me (and will continue to do so) and provided these words over which to mull. As a reader and a writer, I would be lost without you.
Written/Compiled By David H. Schleicher