As Will Rogers reminded us, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is never truer than when an agent or publisher reads the opening of your novel, or when a potential buyer flicks to Chapter 1 while browsing in Barnes and Noble. So how can you grasp your reader from the very first sentence?
Before answering that question, let’s look at a few examples—some good, some great, and some … well, you decide.
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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
—Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
—C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)
Roman Velasco climbed the fire escape and swung over the wall onto the flat roof.
—Francine Rivers, The Masterpiece (2017)
That’s quite a variety of opening lines! In reading these examples, and several others, the first thing that struck me was there is no magic formula for writing a great opening sentence. But there are definitely some things to avoid.
1. Avoid Cliché
Bulwer-Lytton’s famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night … ,” was described by Zachary Petit on the Writer’s Digest blog, as “… the literary posterchild for bad story starters.” It’s even provided the inspiration for a contest for “egregiously bad fake first lines.” (Famous First Lines Reveal How to Start a Novel, Jan 18, 2013.)
One reason why it’s a bad opening line is that it’s so timeworn it’s become trite. So much so that it’s now considered the stereotypical bad opening sentence.
So, don’t fall into Snoopy’s trap but make sure you use a tad more originality, and I don’t just mean, “It was a bright and sunny afternoon …!”
Ironically, in researching this topic, I found at least two articles that specifically stated you should avoid writing about the weather; one even had it as the #1 tip. But did you notice the opening line from 1984? “It was a bright cold day in April …” So why was that a successful opening sentence?
2. Create a Question in the Reader’s Mind
In 1984, George Orwell didn’t just describe the weather, he was already taking you into his totalitarian, futuristic world by telling you the clocks were striking thirteen—and not just one clock, but “the clocks.” This extraordinary fact demands attention because it immediately raises a question in the reader’s mind: “why?”
That question creates something inside the reader that needs to be satisfied, which can only be achieved by reading on. If Orwell had written, “It was a bright cold day in April and Winston Smith nuzzled his chin into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind,” the sentence would have been complete in itself; raising no questions and providing nothing to propel you further down the page.
Orwell achieved his goal by describing something out of the ordinary but there are other ways of achieving the same goal. For example, read these 2 sentences:
- I watched George walk past our house every weekday.
- George scrutinized everything around him with a radar-like intensity as he scurried to work each morning.
The first sentence simply provides information but the second raises several questions because information is hidden, or implied, in it. Did he have reason to believe he was being watched? If so, why? By whom? Or did he have something to hide? What? From whom? Why did he “scurry” rather than “trudge” or “hasten?” I don’t know, but I need to find out!
The opening to The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925) achieves the same goal:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
What piece of advice was he given? Why had he been turning it over in his mind ever since? You’ll never know if you put it back on the shelf.
3. Use “Philosophical” Statements
Examples of this are the openings to Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and Pride and Prejudice. Such sentences can be very innovative; piquing interest and emotion while engaging intellectually with your readers.
Though frequently associated with classic European literature, they can be used to great effect in modern literary fiction and even science fiction, by introducing your readers to the philosophy underpinning the fictional world they are entering.
A more modern example is Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth:
What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts.
4. Dive Right Into the Action
The above example from The Masterpiece by Francine Rivers uses this technique. It immediately initiates the plot and engages the reader right from the start. This type of opening is particularly effective when the action is exciting, unexpected, or produces a reaction—especially an emotional one.
There are other types of opening sentences that are equally effective but they all tend to leave the reader in a state akin to musical dissonance—one that craves resolution to achieve “satisfaction.” In music this means progressing to an aurally pleasing (“consonant”) note or chord; in literature it’s finishing the book!
Of course, a great opening sentence demands a great opening paragraph. But we’ll leave that for another day.
What’s your favorite opening sentence to a novel (or non-fiction work)? Why?
How do the philosophical openings to Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, and The Book of Ruth differ from each other?
What other “hook the reader” techniques did you notice in the examples above?