The Importance of Opening Lines

I’ve been thinking about opening lines the last couple of days. I cannot over stress the importance of an opening line. It’s the first thing a reader sees (well, not counting the cover or back cover blurb), so you have to make a good impression! Let’s take stock of a few memorable opening lines:

There’s the now clichéd “It was a dark and stormy night,” by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Paul Clifford (1830), which has since spawned The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening line (very funny read, I recommend checking them out).

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities.

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

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The Gunslinger, Stephen King

“There was once a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.” Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier.

You get the idea.

The opening to my own novel House of Cards (yeah I went singular with the title) is a pretty decent one, I thought: It isn’t every day you see a dead man running.

I read somewhere in blogdom over the summer that the opening line sells a book and the last line sells the next book (if anyone remembers where this came from, let me know so I can properly credit the author)[Editor’s note: it was Mickey Spillane]. I got to thinking about this yesterday after Shadow died because a friend of mine (whose dad used to be a mortician and funeral director) made a comment that I thought would make a fabulous opening line: It always rains when a good man dies.

I’m going to use it in something. I don’t know what yet. But look at the possibilities that go along with it! (apart from the obvious). It could be raining when they bury a bad man. It could be dry as a bone and the middle of a drought when they bury a good man. Is it raining? Is it sunny? Who died and why? Was it natural? Murder? These are all questions engendered by that one line. And that’s what makes it a hook. The reader wants those questions answered and you have a whole book in which to do it. So spend some time crafting those first lines to make sure you engage the reader from the get go.

6 thoughts on “The Importance of Opening Lines

  1. I totally agree with you. Though I’ve got a fairly decent opening line myself for my first novel, which is in progress (ummm…I am almost about to spill it but I don’t think I want to right now… 🙂 ), my favourite one remains Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
    It is a truth universally acknowledged… (I’m sure you know that line…)

  2. …that a single man in
    possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    Sigh…a classic. And well timed! I’m going to see Becoming Jane tonight…

  3. I always liked that ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. 🙂

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was written by someone called *Clive Staples* Lewis – ever since he was a kid he decided to call himself Jack instead.

    How about this one?

    “There were things at the bottom of Brother Sebastien’s bag that he didn’t know were there.’ – Lamb, by Bernard McLaverty.

    Things? What things? Old chocolate wrappers? Poisonous insects? Guns? How did they get there?

  4. I love that idea of it raining when a good man dies – there are so many ways you could turn that and make it something very surprising.

    Also – I just use a regular line until I’m finished with the story. Then I usually pick something that foreshadows the end. I wish I could think of them when I start a story. 🙂

    Also – the fact that you used the Dark Tower line made me inexplicably happy. 😀

  5. Bri,

    My hubby is a HUGE Dark Tower fan. I have yet to make it past The Gunslinger….

    Prospectus…CLIVE STAPLES? Really? I never knew that!

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