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…