Opening Line

How important is a novel’s opening line?

I would argue… very. It sets the tone, the pace, pitches you into the action…or not. It almost immediately displays the voice. If there’s verb, you have the tense. A pronoun, the person. A good opener could hook you straight away. A poor one might put you off.

I’ve oft argued that the main justification for any sentence is to make the reader read the next one. How much more so, then, that opener?

Here are a few, from books I’ve randomly plucked from my shelves:

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” (On the Road)

“On the 24th of February 1815, the watch tower of Notre Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three masted Phaeron, from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.” (The Count of Monte Cristo)

“From between two trees at the crest of the hill a very old man watched, with a nostalgic longing he thought he’d lost all capacity for, as the last group of picnickers packed up their baskets, mounted their horses, and rode away south.” (The Anubis Gates)

Hmm! They all do quite different things, don’t they? Kerouac makes you think you have picked up a conversation, recently ended with a pal. You are in. The Dumas? Its a style of storytelling from the 18th century. No nonsense. Yet a ship arriving is always intriguing. (Though if I bring one from the middle east I prefer Aleppo) Tim Powers extraordinary tale? Not sold by that opening. Luckily I persevered, its brilliant.

I think I rewrite my first sentence more often than any other. What door do I want my reader to go through? I think I prefer shorter but I haven’t always used it. I like a dramatic image. If all stories begin at some primeval campfire, how do you draw your listeners to the flames?

Here’s the first line from my first novel:

“It was unseasonably cold for a late May night but the former occupant of the gibbet was too dead to care and his replacement too unconscious.” (The French Executioner)

I won’t comment – but you can. I’ve just added the opening line from each novel to their page at my website. Love to hear your thoughts on them. Love to hear favourite opening lines. How about posting one of your own, and one of another’s?

And then we might look at closers. How do you end something? With an answer? With a question? With a…

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7 Responses to Opening Line

  1. I have a question for you that I’ve been trying to answer for myself: If there’s a prologue to the book, is the first sentence of the book the opening sentence of the prologue or is it the first sentence of Chapter 1? Or in such a situation do you need 2 really terrific opening sentences? I love your first sentence! Talk about Voice! I read somewhere that one should never start a book with a description of the weather (advice I ignored), but the weather combined with a gibbet and a body — now that’s just brilliant!

    Author answer: Glad you liked it, Patiricia. Hmm! Tricky on prologue. I think if its a scene or era setter it doesn’t count. If its character then it does. But I just made that up so…

  2. “My Aunt Brennan had three breasts, none of which was much service to her. Perfectly equipped to suckle Cerberus, had that three-headed guardian of the underworld been more than a myth, she was condemned by our village as a witch and chained to a wall, till it fell time for
    the Gloucester Assizes.”

    The Day I Died.

    Love it, Charlie. Published or work in progress?

  3. I like your opening line. Certainly promises some drama.

  4. Good to see some responses to ‘Opening Line’. Its a very interesting area. And I agree with Mary above: every scene should have a good opener too.

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