I struggle with beginning paragraphs whenever I write, most especially the opening line. It’s a compulsion. I gnaw away at it like a beaver with a freshly-felled log, hoping to turn the raw material into the foundation of something solid and enduring. Days can pass while I write, revise, edit, and annotate, drafting and redrafting until the opener is shipshape, but once it is the rest of the story tends to come easily.
Of course, nine times out of ten I finish the manuscript only to realize that the opening paragraph doesn’t work at all with the rest of the story, and wind up cutting it entirely.
It didn’t used to be like this; time was I would simply dump whatever effluvium happened to be percolating in my forebrain out onto the page, only going back to clean up and correct after the rough draft was completed. This changed after I served a stint as a fiction editor for my university’s literary magazine. I quickly found that the opening paragraph of a submission was a great litmus test for the rest of the story; if it wasn’t up to snuff, odds were good the remaining pages weren’t either. It was humbling to realize this applied just as much to my own stories as the anonymous ones regularly deluging our tiny little office.
Any seasoned traveler will tell you that how you begin a journey is crucial, even if you’ve no idea where you’ll end up. So it is with writing. And that first sentence is the lynchpin of the opening paragraph, the coy seductress who coils her finger at the reader and whispers hints of the pleasures that might lie in wait, if only the covers were parted just a little further. There’s an indefinable alchemy to it; you know the moment you read it whether or not the opening line works, even if you cannot quite say why.
All of which is the long way of saying I’ve decided to offer ten of my favorite opening lines, and to discuss, as best I can, why they work for me. These aren’t necessarily from my favorite books, or by my favorite authors, or my Top Ten All-Time Favorite Opening Lines; these are simply lines that happen to stroke my particular literary erogenous zones in just the right ways, both as a reader and a writer, each culled from a novel in my personal library.
In the spirit of fun, I’ve listed them initially sans author or publication information, as something of a challenge to you, the reader. Audience participation, if you like. How many do you recognize, and how well – or badly – do they engage you when you read them free of context?
One quick caveat: All books by TNB contributors, as well as those of my professors and former classmates who’ve gone on to publish, are disqualified for consideration in this essay due to favoritism on my part. I’ve yet to read a book by a TNB contributor that didn’t hook me from the get-go, because you’re all so damn awesome, and this essay is already biased enough as it is.
Here they are then, in (mostly) no particular order. The identity of each and a brief description of why I favor it follows.
1.) “For a man his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
2.) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
3.) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”
4.) “Squire Trelawny, Dr. Livesay, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17— and go back to a time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”
5.) “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”
6.) “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.”
7.) “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
8.) “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
9.) “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped onto its side, and lined the collection box in red crépe paper – was written by her in a two day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”
10.) “Call me Ishmael.”
BONUS LINE: “I was crossing the Belltower’s shadow away from the commons when I ran into Hannah Marshall, her rust-colored Doc Martens crushing the unraked dead leaves underfoot as she stomped across the grass towards me.”
1.) J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. This novel of post-Apartheid South Africa remains one of the most emotionally devastating books I have ever read, a sparse, trim volume that barely clocks in at 220 pages. The phrase “the problem of sex” leapt out at me right away; the notion of sex as a problem with a quantified solution is a backdoor into the mind of the protagonist, a Capetown professor of modern languages who in the course of those 220 pages discovers just how wrong his presumption is.
2.) William Gibson, Neuromancer. Possibly my first conscious encounter with cognitive dissonance. It was a dated reference when I first discovered it in 1994, a dead channel during the age of ubiquitous cable TV looking like either static or those damned colored bars, so I had no idea what this might in fact look like, but my imagination was immediately engaged in trying to conjure it.
3.) Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The pairing of “gifted and abominable” here is like a dollop of warm caramel wrapped in dark chocolate for my brain, but I also love the rhythm of this as it uncoils, making the boldfaced claim that the protagonist is a person beyond redemption. I was dubious about the book going in, unsure as to how interesting a story about the world’s greatest sense of smell might be, but after spotting this line, I wound up reading much of it in a single sitting. Loved the film, too.
4.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. A bit longish and unwieldy, but if you’re a nine year-old boy when you first read the book (as I was), you recognize it for what it is: Stevenson’s promise the story contains everything a good pirate yarn should. A perilous sea voyage to an exotic, treasure laden-locale? Check! Grog-soaked, leathery sea dogs? Check! A mention of a sabre wound, and thus the potential for more swashbuckling action and derring-do? Check! Nary a girl in sight? Check!
5.) Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller. Yes, THAT Hugh Laurie, the one currently starring as the titular protagonist of the TV series House. He published it in 1996, and it’s actually pretty good, a satire of the spy genre that also happens to be a pretty entertaining action/adventure story in its own right. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about that line, but an invitation to contemplate the best manner of inflicting a specific form of grievous bodily harm certainly gets my immediate attention.
6.) Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. This was as a curiosity when I first encountered it. I was already familiar with the story, having taken a date to the Ralph Fiennes/Julianne Moore adaptation, and expected the novel to open with the same line the film does: “This is a diary of hate.” It comes in somewhat perpendicular to the narrative, but I like the existential, musing quality of it, and it sets up nicely the free will vs. divine intervention subtext that runs though the rest of the novel.
7.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck is well-remembered for his stories and characters, but I sometimes think his facility with the English language goes overlooked, as readers seem more keen to discuss the underlying social commentaries in his work than anything else. He’s one of the few writers I’ve encountered able to deploy the third-person omniscient POV subtly, often to great affect. This line – the entire first chapter, really – reads almost as the poetry of desolation.
8.) Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. This is the first line ever narrated by Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s quintessential hard-boiled private eye. Like Steinbeck, I’ve always enjoyed Chandler’s skills as a linguistic stylist. Though he’d previously published several detective stories in the pulp magazines that were later rewritten as Marlowe tales (collected in Trouble is My Business) these are Marlowe’s first true words, and they immediately betray his cynical perspective to the reader.
9.) Ian McEwan, Atonement. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the novel that I understood just how much work this line is doing, and just how clever McEwan is about hiding it. Inside this sentence is everything the reader needs to know about Briony, about her priorities and the choices she as a character will later make; in this one line McEwan lays a foundation that pays off several times throughout the novel, all while describing a child’s creative enthusiasm. That’s skill.
10.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is a small thing, but one that I’ve always enjoyed, and only rarely seen referred to in criticism: through three very selective words Melville establishes his narrator as potentially unreliable, which has colored my perspective of the book both times I read it. This isn’t a declarative statement (“My name is Ishmael”) by any means; it’s the phrasing used by a person with something to hide. I use this line whenever I teach I writing workshop as a lesson in how, with the proper word choice, a writer can say a great deal with minimal effort.
BONUS LINE: Trick question! This is one of mine, from my unpublished first novel. Though I’m not happy with the book overall, I’m rather fond of this bit.
…although, now that I look at it, I can see a few places where it could use a little tinkering. Excuse me, would you?
All right then. These are some of my favorite first lines – now how about yours? Feel free to go with fiction, poetry, film, or even song lyrics – whatever it is that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you whenever you encounter it.