It’s all in the Opening Line

by Kelly on February 22, 2010 · 14 comments

in Film. TV. Books. Music

book-first-page

“Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.”

~E.P. Whipple

I was reading to Bunny last night before bed and I came across one of my favourite opening lines for a book. And it got me thinking about my own novel and how I have yet to write the perfect opener.

To my mind, a great opening line is essential. It may not precede an equally great read, but without it, I won’t even want to buy the book.

The book I was reading last night is a favourite I have referred to before.

Dr Seuss, The Lorax.
“At the far end of town where the grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows and no birds ever sing excepting old crows…. is the Street of the Lifted Lorax.”

It’s poetry in narrative because it slides of the tongue, sets the melodic rhythm of the book, is simple and has such visual word choices. It’s perfect.

Other favourites which have immediately intrigued me or demonstrated language I knew I’d appreciate are:

George Orwell, 1984
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Crisp writing and immediately I know this story is something different.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Unique and captivating. This also tells me right away what story I am reading.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Clever and insightful. Masterful lanaguage and construction.

Carrie Fisher, Surrender the Pink
“Dinah Kaufman lost her virginity a total of three times.”

Catchy, quirky and clever. I love smart and funny writing, so I bought the book right then and there.

Honourable Mention

The following is an opening paragraph, rather than an opening line, but it is one of the most compelling beginnings of a novel that I have ever read. The rest of the book is just as fantastic if you like crime.

Andrew Vachss, Shella
“The first time I killed someone I was scared. Not scared to be doing it, I did it because I was scared. Shella told me it was like that for her the first time she had sex. I was fifteen that first time. Shella was nine.”

Sparsely written and plain spoken but also gritty, heart wrenching, and unsettling. I love this book. It’s one that stays with you.

Do you have any favourite opening lines of books? I know there are many others I love, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

How do you choose a book to buy? Are you like me saying “Yay” or “Nay” depending on the first page? Or maybe the cover and back blurb are important to you. Do you need time to have a good leaf through the pages? Or maybe you only read books that have been recommended by people you trust. Fill me in.

Kelly

Flickr Photo by photobunny

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Evelyn Lim 02.22.10 at 10:42 am

I enjoyed Dr Seuss for his quirkiness. The opening done by George Orwell that you highlighted intrigued me rightaway! Since I read more non-fiction books now, I don’t exactly go for opening lines. Most of the time is by recommendation. But I know the kid in me goes for the magic stuff, so I have a tendency to borrow books on fairies, unicorns, castles and rainbows for my kids. They happen to like them too!
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2 Dad 02.22.10 at 10:42 am

It was the best of times… it was the worst of times.

3 Betsy Wuebker 02.22.10 at 11:08 am

Hi Kelly - What a lovely post. This opening is my favorite, even though I can only remember the “but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” part. :)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth./i> - J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
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4 Cath Lawson 02.22.10 at 11:31 am

Hi Kelly - What a brilliant post idea. I love great opening lines more than anything and I would definitely choose a book based on one. Also, I check out book reviews on Amazon, the section in the book shop where they have new novels recommended by staff.

If friends recommend a book, or I read a recommendation in a blog I trust, I’ll usually check them out too.

This is one opening line that made me want to read on right away:
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past fifteen years, it’s this; that murder is really no big deal.” Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.

5 Donna 02.22.10 at 11:54 am

Hi Kel,
I love this opening line:
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” its from Prince Caspian - The Chronicales of Narnia.
These days I like books I can escape into and fantasy does it for me.
great post.

6 Steph 02.22.10 at 3:25 pm

Oooh Kelly I have just discovered your blog - I love it !

I wish I was more of a reader than I am, I’m a cover and blurb person & it has to be easy reading (short words, big typface ;- ) … but you have definitley convinced me to read Surrender the Pink and Shella.

7 vered 02.23.10 at 8:17 am

Definitely by the first page! I know that lots of people base their decisions on reviews, or on the back cover.. but I agree with you that if the first few lines don’t make me want to keep reading, then I won’t get the book.

8 Kelly 02.23.10 at 11:59 am

@Evelyn
Dr Seuss was a legend and thankfully Bunny appreciates his stories just as much as I do, so we get to experience that wonderful wacky world together. I agree that first lines are meaningless in non-fiction. I do like to read that too, but I go more for the jacket blurb, subject matter and reviews when selecting non-fiction books.

@Dad
That is a great first line from Dickens for A Tale of Two Cities. I only used lines from books I read and I haven’t read any Dickens.

@Betsy
I also enjoyed Catcher in the Rye and from this opening line you know are immediately introduced to the highly original narrator. Great writing.

Kelly

9 Kelly 02.23.10 at 12:08 pm

@Cath
I haven’t read that Joanne Harris book - is it good? That is an intriguing opening line so it meets my criteria there. I have only read Chocolat and I loved that. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of reading more of her work.

@Donna
Love the Narnia series too, though I had forgotten that opening line. It is clever. I didn’t used to read any fantasy, but now I am a bit of a fan of urban fantasy. That’s where an author mixes gritty stories set in our world but with fantastical elements. Pure fantasy is not really my thing, but any book that helps you escape is the one to read.

@Steph
Hi, welcome to SHE-POWER. I liked your blog too. The Mamamia website is a handy place for finding interesting women. I agree it can be hard to find the time to read, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you give Shella a go. Surrender the Pink is funny and quirky, though the rest of the book isn’t as good as the first page. But Shella is excellent.

@Vered
The thing with recommendations is you never know if people are taken by the same things as you. When you read the author’s words, however, it doesn’t take long to see if you like their style and there is something of interest there for you.

Kelly

10 Cath Lawson 02.23.10 at 12:32 pm

Ki Kelly - All of Joanne Harris’s books are awesome. It’s hard to choose but I think Five Quarters of The Orange is probably the best.

The Lollipop Shoes is a continuation of Chocolate. It was printed under another title in the US: The Girl With No Shadow but I’m not sure which title they would use in Australia.
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11 Sami 02.24.10 at 7:04 am

Love those opening lines. I have to admit, I’ve never bought a book on its opening line. I never think to read it. I’ll usually buy a book based on someone’s recommendation. I’m a believer that the next book you need to read often finds you.
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12 Gafane 02.24.10 at 9:14 pm

every book I’d like to read and when I get it.
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13 Kenneth 12.17.11 at 3:01 am

This is great. I’ve never really thought about how important those first sentences can be for setting the tone and building interest until now.

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