Monday, November 16, 2009

Opening Lines

Ever picked up a book at random, opening it to the first page, and before you know it, you've read half the book in the store, just because the first line hooked you so quickly?


That's an ideal first line. The opening lines, but especially the first line, of a book is for two things: to capture the attention of the reader and raise story questions.


Take a look at these samples:


In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit~J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit"

This opening snags your attention because you want to know: what is a hobbit? Why do they live in holes? And, since it says "a hobbit" meaning a particular one, what does this hobbit have to do with the Story?

Because it raises Story questions, it captures your attention. Tolkien also answers these questions fairly quickly, but provides more so we are even more interested in the Story.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man of good fortune must be in want of a wife.~Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Why is the man in want of a wife? Who acknowledges this truth? Moreover, what in the WORLD does this have to do with a book with the heavy title of Pride and Prejudice? Again, story questions. And, it's a fun tongue-in-cheek opening. Sets the stage for Elizabeth Bennett's witticisms.


And some not so amazing openings, including one from a modern book:


Squire Trelawner, Dr. Livesey, 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 not only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17--, and go back to the 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~Robert Louis Stevenson, "Treasure Island".

Ick! So there's an island, and some treasure. Whohoo. Makes me wonder if this guy is going to be this long-winded throughout the entire book!

Admission: I might be slightly biased on this one because I don't like Treasure Island. However, I think most of you will agree--it's not a great opening line because it reveals the entire purpose of the book. To me, it leaves no story questions big enough to make someone want to read the entire book.

Does it seem presumptuous to tackle one of the "master" storytellers? Sorry, Mr. Stevenson!


The wind howled like a wounded beast in the southwest~Brian Jacques, "High Rhulain".

Hmm. Do tell. Wake me up when the storm's over. Especially since this is--what?--one of numerous Brain Jacques books that starts with a storm.

That isn't to say that I don't like Brian Jacques' books. The Pearls of Lutra is very good, and Mossflower ranks pretty high in my top-favorites list. However, I do get tired of the multiple books opening with storms. Plus, it doesn't bring up any story questions to be answered.

A better one would be, "The wounded otter crouched on the shoreline, ignoring the wind buffeting her fur."


Ever since I first read about the opening sentence idea, my opening sentences are the ones I've worked on the hardest (next to my closing sentences). After all, what author wouldn't be flattered to know that their readers are going through half the book while still in the bookstore?

8 responses:

Jeannine Kinsey said...

Good post. It made me rethink some of my first sentences. Generally I am very particular about my first sentences, but then there comes a point in time when I just don't care. I get the feeling that I just *have* to start writing the rest of the story, and if I spend one more minute re-writing the first sentence of this thing, I'll explode! Of course, I can always go back and edit it later. Eventually I'll just end up writing what pleases me, and make sure that my beginning sentence really feels like it belongs to the rest of the paragraph. For me, it's the whole paragraph that reels me in, and I think that is the same for most people who enjoy reading.

Lostariel said...

Mine are boring.

Mary Hawkins said...

My favorite opening line of all time is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis: "Once there was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." How perfect can you get?! What did he do to almost deserve it? What quack names their kid Eustace Clarence?
As for me, I'm basically always dissatisfied with my opening lines. I wrote what I humbly consider to be a spectacular line in SOTS the other day: "The sides of the mist-slicked bridge were chest-high and solid, with no gaps or rails through which someone could fall - or be pushed." What a great opener that would make! Description, scenario, story question, everything!Unfortunately it's located in chapter 31.

Limwen said...

Oh, how I wish I could come up with good opening sentences. *sigh*
It takes geniuses like Tolkien or Lewis or Jane Austen to do that. Why do they have to be SO GOOD at writing?? [Well, that's a simple question: because we wouldn't enjoy them if they weren't. ;)]

Heather said...

So, girls, does this mean that I need to do a post on creating good opening sentences/paragraphs?
Thanks for stopping by, everyone!

Mary Hawkins said...

Yes it does!

Kyleigh said...

I love Treasure Island. Though I think my love for it began watching Disney's "Treasure Planet." But I must agree, it is a TERRIBLE opening line.

I think my favorite openings of my own would be from my short stories "Broken Trust" and "More than Conquerors." A lot of my story ideas come from openings. Like my latest phrase - "Fire. They come with fire." (It sounds better in French. Everything does. Maybe I should resort to writing in French).

I must concur with Mary, this does call for a post on writing openings. :)

Mary, that opening sends shivers down my spine. Probably because the description of the bridge makes me think it's attached to some ominous castle, filled with villains.

Galadriel said...

My first NaNo opens with In my earliest dream, [I]I was a bat, gliding on huge leather canopies through the velvet night. [/I] The next sentence is [i]I still soar with bats in the silver twilight—before I fall asleep.[/I]


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