15. Grand Openings Part 1: The First Lines

Author: Nola Published: almost 3 years ago.
Tags: openings, beginnings, hook Category: Writing tips

Did you know that Snoopy lifted the first line of his failed manuscript from an 1830 novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton? If you’ve never heard of the novel Paul Clifford, it could have something to do with the opening:

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The Bulwer-Lytton award is given each year to the writer who can come up with the worst opening line of a fictitious novel. If you’d like a laugh, you can find this year’s winners here.

Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, a good opening draws readers in and makes them want to turn the page. Lee Gutkind suggests leaving out unnecessary background information and dropping the reader straight into the action or main theme of the story. Here are a few of my favourite opening lines that do just that.

    ‘Hush … Can you hear him? The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.’ (From The Distant Hours by Kate Morton). This is an intriguing beginning. We don’t know who ‘he’ is, but there seems to be something ominous and perhaps supernatural about his approach. ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ (From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury). This sentence is striking because it goes against what we would usually think. What’s burning and why is it a pleasure? ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ (From Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier). What is Manderley? Why is the narrator dreaming of it? What happened when she was there before?

All of these openings create interest and raise questions which we want answered. They compel us to read on. You can always go back and fill in more details once you’ve piqued your reader’s interest.

For Issue #36 of Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction journal, the editors experimented by eliminating the original opening paragraphs of some of the essays so that readers would get to the heart of the stories more quickly. You can read about the experiment here.

Why not try the same with your current manuscript. Would it work better if you started further into the story?

Writing a sizzling opening line takes a lot of thought and revision, but it has a great pay off in terms of reader attention. Of course once you’ve hooked your reader, it’s important to fulfill what you’ve promised, but I’ll save that for a future post.

For now, consider some of the best opening lines of fiction from the American Book Review’s Top 100 List.

Which are your favourites and why? I’d be interested in your opinions.

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