The opening line to your novel is the most important line in your entire book. It’s purpose is to hook the reader into finishing the remainder of the page. There are several ways to accomplish this.
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
That’s the first sentence of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. I don’t recommend reading the entire book, but that’s a killer opening line. It accomplishes what any good opening line should accomplish, by planting questions in the mind of the reader: Who is this person, and what happened on the hay truck?
This isn’t your typical character. There’s an air of danger about him, an element of intrigue that’s difficult to resist. Notice also that it’s an easy sentence to read. It flows smoothly and the reader knows this is going to be a fast-paced and interesting story. As I said, I don’t recommend the book, but this is one of the most famous (and most imitated) opening lines in American literature. Doesn’t it make you want to continue reading?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
What’s your first reaction to that line? Do you agree? Disagree? This opening sentence, from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, states an interesting premise and it does so in a compelling way. It makes you wonder just who would write such a line and what more do they have to say on this subject. It also promises us a tale of money, love, and romance, and who can resist that setup?
I wanted to strangle mother but I’d have to touch her to do it.
That’s the opening line to an original work by a student of Sol Stein’s from page 19 of his book Stein on Writing (an excellent book that I highly recommend). The author is Loretta Hudson, and Stein says he has heard audiences gasp when that opening sentence is read to them. I can see why. It invokes in the reader an immediate curiosity of just who this person is and what happened between her and her mother. I defy anyone to read that sentence and not want to continue with the rest of the page.
A telephone ringing in the middle of the night is not a welcome sound.
That’s another opening line from one of Stein’s students. Can you feel the hook, drawing you into the story? It’s such an interesting sentence; it tells you, without telling you, that the narrator has just received one of those late night calls. Doesn’t it make you wonder who called and what the call is about?
Call me Ishmael.
You may recognize this one from Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s another classic opener. It doesn’t say much, but it indicates an intimate and breezy tone, told with authority. (If only the rest of the book had the same sense of clarity and brevity.) It leaves the impression that the narrator is a close associate and he’s about to fill you in on something important.
When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.
Are you intrigued? It’s the opening to The Split by Richard Stark aka Don Westlake. Don’t waste your time with the book, but it’s a good example of an opener that’s virtually impossible to pass up.
It was a crime that Mr. Kingman never expected and that scared him half to death.
Quick, what’s your reaction? Don’t you want to know what the crime was and what happened? Would you keep reading? It’s an original.
“Is he dead?”
Three simple words. Yet how many images did they conjure up in your mind? It’s another original, and it is virtually impossible to read that line of dialogue and not continue. Although those words are the beginning to a middle-grade mystery novel, they could also be the opening of an historical novel set at the time of the Crucifixion, a tale about Lincoln (beginning at his death and told in flashback), a story about a boy and a dog …
Elmer Gantry was drunk.
Short, hard-hitting, and to the point. It’s the opening line to Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. Wouldn’t you want to read at least one more line?
It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
The opening line of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Notice how clear and crisp the writing is? Firing squads are not an everyday occurrence. Most people would have a hard time putting that book down.
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what am I about to tell you.”
I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that if you were holding The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in your hands right now, you would not be able to resist reading at least one more line.
Shock, surprise, mystery, intrigue, even humor. These are all elements that contribute to a killer opening line. Did you notice how all these opening lines imply something askew, something not quite right. That’s the effect you want. Neither your life, nor the lives of any of the characters, will ever be the same after that opening line.
Can you come up with an opening line to your novel that’s as good as any of these?
Just as important as your novel’s opening line are your opening paragraphs. The opening line is designed to convince the reader to finish reading the first page. The opening paragraphs are designed to hook him into finishing your first chapter.
The first time I saw him he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.
That’s the first paragraph of What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. Does it make you want to keep reading? It works for me. Read it again and ask yourself what the most important word is in the entire paragraph. Do it now.
According to Sol Stein, and I agree, the most important word is “ferret.” That single word characterizes Sammy in such a way that it’s almost impossible not to keep reading.
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
That’s the opening to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. It’s simple, it’s direct, and it works like a charm. Instant conflict. And notice how it characterizes Tom even though he is neither seen nor heard! Amazing, isn’t it? Would you be tempted to keep reading?
He topped the high ridge on a wild blue roan with a skull and crossbones brand. He was a drifter, reckless and hard, a man without fear and without a name. The Colorado high country he rode was breathtaking, but all he had on his mind was vengeance. For the night wind stung his neck where the rope burns were still raw. Some good citizens from the last town left him twisting slowly from an unjust noose. They made a big mistake when they didn’t finish the job.
Is that a great opening paragraph or what? It establishes time, place, character and back story and it accomplishes all those things in an exciting and economical way. It’s by Louis L’Amour. It breaks several cardinal rules by telling vs. showing, but it works.
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
What a classic opener! Have you ever met such a loon? (He sounds like the scoundrel who hits our blog in a stealth attack early each morning, giving a single star to every post.) It’s from the Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Hard to read that paragraph and not want to continue.
Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug. His hands were jammed in his trouser pockets, and he sneered. He puffed, drew the fag out of his mouth, inhaled and said to himself:
Well, I’m kissin’ the old dump goodbye tonight.
That’s the opening to Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Notice how it sets up the main character and the entire tone of the book right there in the first paragraph. And look at the verbs the author uses: “pasted”, “jammed”, “sneered”, “puffed”, “inhaled”, “kissin’.” That’s powerful writing.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it?”
Recognize that one? It’s the beginning of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. Dialogue is a great way to open a novel, and a favorite technique of the old pulp magazine editors. In this case, it creates instant characters, instant conflict. Charlotte’s Web has been a perennial best seller since it first appeared, and a large part of its success is due to those opening lines. (Did you see Papa with his ax, even though he’s not really in the scene and is never described?)
All day the cold Virginia sky had hung low over Spencer’s Mountain. It was a leaden, silent, moist presence. It promised snow before the fall of night.
Looking from her kitchen window, Olivia Spencer observed the ashen sky. It did not feel like Christmas. The moment which had always come in other years, that mingled feeling of excitement and promise which she called The Christmas Spirit, had evaded her. Christmas had always been a time of rejuvenation to Olivia, a time to reaffirm her faith in God’s goodness, to enjoy the closeness of friends and family; a time to believe in miracles again.
Those two paragraphs set a perfect tone and location to the beginning of The Homecoming by Earl Hamner, Jr. Note the subtle sense of foreboding in the first paragraph. Wouldn’t you be tempted to read more? This one also breaks the rule by telling instead of showing, which goes to show you how misguided most writing rules are.
On the day before Thanksgiving the Spencer clan began to gather. It was a custom that at this time during the year the nine sons would come together in New Dominion. On Thanksgiving Eve they would celebrate their reunion with food and drink and talk. On the day itself the men would leave at dawn to hunt for deer.
All day cars had been arriving at Clay Spencer’s house. Each car was greeted by Clay-Boy, a thin boy of fifteen with a serious freckled face topped by an unruly shock of darkening corn-colored hair. Now the day was drawing toward evening, but still the boy lingered at the back gate waiting for the one uncle who had not yet arrived, the one he wanted most to see.
That’s by the same author, Earl Hamner, Jr., from Spencer’s Mountain. Notice how it leaves an unanswered question: Will Clay-Boy meet the one uncle he is waiting for? It also makes you wonder just why he wants to see his uncle so badly.
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to study how others have done it, and Spencer’s Mountain is as close to a perfect book as any I’ve ever read.
“Rubbish! Absolute rubbish!”
Mr. Herbert E. Beasley spoke with a clipped British accent to his ninth grade English class at Trinity High School. He held a test paper gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, pinky extended, as if it were a foul-smelling rag, and dropped the offending item on the desk of Jeffrey Jones.
Bam! Conflict right at the beginning. Note how the words “foul-smelling” and “offending” seem to fit the character of Beasley, as things he would say, even though they are descriptive and not dialogue, and how the words “gingerly” and “pinky” suit his stuffy British personality. There’s also a touch of humor. It’s an original.
On rocky islands gulls awoke. Time to be about their business. Silently they floated in on the town, but when their icy eyes sighted the first dead fish, first bits of garbage about the ships and wharves, they began to scream and quarrel.
Did you find that interesting? It’s the first paragraph of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. The novel is set in Boston at the time of the American Revolution and the city of Boston itself is a major character. The screaming and quarreling of the gulls is a nice touch and a parallel to the conflict we’ll soon see between the Americans and the British. The author awakens two of our senses here, both sight and sound. Would you continue reading?
The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand. I kept rubbing my face to wipe out the fuzz that clouded my mind but the cops wouldn’t let me. One would pull my hand away and shout a question at me that made my head ache even worse and another would slap me with a wet rag until I felt like I had been split wide open.
Okay, so it’s Mickey Spillane, and I don’t recommend any of his books, but that’s an opening paragraph that’s simply irresistible. Notice how simple, yet how compelling the language is. Here’s a character in a jam. How can you leave until you find out what happened?
None of the above samples contain difficult words, long sentences, or highfalutin language; none of the literary pretensions that make readers cringe and English professors swoon. Just good, solid writing. (It’s long been my suspicion that the dearth of reading among Americans has less to do with a lack of desire on their part than with the quality of the books and novels being offered, along with a complication of the writing process. I’m a pretty smart guy and I have difficulty untangling the sentences of most modern novels. Remember, you’re a 21st century warrior artist, not some Victorian-era artiste, writing with a quill pen.)
Like the opening sentences we observed, these opening paragraphs also imply a change from the status quo. Almost all of them contain conflict. They all feature either the book’s lead character or a strong supporting character. Each of these openings establishes the author’s voice and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
A great scene on page two won’t help if the reader never gets there, so hit the ground running with the opening to your novel. Write a killer opening line to your story, followed by an equally killer opening paragraph. Then see to it that every page thereafter matches them in style and execution.
Tune in next week for more.