First Words

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” “It was a pleasure to burn.” “Call me Ishmael.” Opening lines, all. They can be powerful, dragging the reader into the pages of a story.

A friend’s company recently set up a Kickstarter campaign. The cause is a worthy one–supporting artists through scholarships–but from reading its title and opening text, you’d have no clue what you were being asked to support. The explanation comes four paragraphs into the page. It’s a sure recipe for people clicking the “close” button and moving along to Cracked or Failblog. (I made some suggestions to the authors, and I hope it helps.)

It’s the same with any writing, any story, any book. The opening paragraph–the opening sentence, even–has enormous power, and readers who haven’t passed on the title (or headline) will decide whether to keep reading base on those opening words. How a book starts? That’s its best advertisement. When somebody has your book in their hand or is reading the sample chapter online, they are on the cusp: It’s easy for them to buy the book, but easier for them to put it down. Not everyone browsing a book reads the first page, but more of them read it than, say, page 114. (Personally, I open the book at random and read a sentence or two. I just stay away from the end. But I’d venture I’m in the minority.)

Let’s look at some openings. (All these opening lines come from my library, but if you want more such there are probably entire websites devoted to them.)

The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. There are no sirens of flashing lights, but the late-model Buick does emit a staccato bwip-bwip to signal the public that business is at hand.

Context is everything. This opening would be unremarkable in a police procedural or a mystery, but this book is neither: It’s the opening of Word Freak, a memoir about competitive Scrabble. The above scene is playing out while the author is playing in the park, against an opponent he barely knows. Unremarkable in a mystery or a police procedural, this opening makes Stefan Fatsis’s tale of a journalist sucked into a cutthroat subculture instantly… offbeat and interesting enough to keep reading.

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There was once a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who live there.

During the summer the daytime temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees in the shade–if you can find any shade. There’s not much shade in a big dry lake.

This book is a little heavier on setting and lighter on plot, but Louis Sachar’s Holes is a classic example of character-setting interaction. It’s a melding of mystery and horror, tragedy and triumph; and the forbidding summer camp where the action takes place is virtually a character of its own. Painting the scenery in front of the reader like this can be a gamble, but I think it’s one that works very well here.

Forty minutes out of London, passing through the rolling green fields and cherry orchards of Kent, the morning train of the South Eastern Railway attained its maximum speed of fifty-four miles an hour.

There’s more that gives the reader information about the uniformed employees, the chugging engines, and so on, but we almost don’t need anything else. This opening sentence from Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery gives the reader amazing amounts of information about location, scenery, and time.

My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Asher Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.

These lines have lost a little of their power to shock in the forty years that have passed since Chiam Potok wrote them. The first five words–which are also the novel’s title–make it clear that you will be reading about a figure of controversy. They are also wonderful at leading into the next five: I am an observant Jew, leading us into this conflict between community and artistry.

I’ll finish these quotes with the opening line from John Varley’s Steel Beach: ” ‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete,’ said the salesman.” The opening chapter takes place at a press conference, where a bio-engineering firm is displaying its wares, but encompasses the gender-agnostic theme that runs through the book.

A book is successful when it is read by others. A killer first line is not the only way to get that to happen; plenty of authors I love have gentle openings that slowly but surely seduce the reader. (Gene Wolfe, Mark Twain, Neil Gaiman.) But that first line, that first paragraph–they can pull the reader into the book.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit.

He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, who are performing in Bridgewater, New Jersey in a few weeks; he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him. He’s also available for hire as a live audio engineer. 


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