Opening Lines

Jul 27, 2010 | The Publishing Industry

Kevin Sheridan over at Optimism Abounds has a post up about getting started with a story. Everyone says that you need something that will instantly grab the reader and get them into the story; something pithy, memorable, interesting, whatever. Nothing like “It was a dark and stormy night” anyway.

Yes, children, starting off your fantasy epic with a description of the weather is not exactly quality prose. Famous first lines usually have something better going on that instantly makes the reader want to look at the second line, then the third one, and so on in that fashion until they’ve got to the last page. Is this easy? Good grief, no – but if you’re really getting serious about this writing thing, you really should make an effort to, y’know, write something that people will want to read.

Anyway. Memorable or interesting first lines:

  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter, of course. The tone captures the characters perfectly; just a little snide, a little petulent, very stuck up. You’d read on simply because it’s a fantastic piece of prose.
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice. One of my personal favourites, and one of the most well known opening lines in the world. Interesting, quirky, almost playful writing.
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984. All at once familiar and strange. George Orwell’s publisher must have known he was on to a winner here.
  • We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ah, Hunter S. Thompson. Apparently Fear and Loathing was partly based on his own weird experiences. You’d read on if only to find out what happens when you get hammered on drugs in a desert.
  • Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” – Northern Lights. The line might be ordinary if not for the mention of the daemon.
  • To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman.” – A Scandal in Bohemia. Watson is talking about Irene Adler, you discover later. But wow, what a hook there – it hangs on the reader knowing who Sherlock Holmes is, and you continue to find out who is the mysterious woman that has such an effect on him.

I have a problem with first lines, I think. I read over the opening of the Novel again last week, and winced at how pedestrian it sounded to me. I’ve already decided that the story has to start there, where the main characters suddenly come into contact with each other, and if I can’t make a scene full of danger and excitement and death-defying madness sound interesting, then there’s really no hope for me.

…Actually, I have an opening to another story I wrote a while back. I was talking to another writer-type friend, and we got chatting about the most overused opening lines. So I took the clich├ęd “It was a dark and story night” and tried to make something of it that didn’t sound boring.


It was a dark and stormy night.

Except it wasn’t. I wanted it to be, though. I needed lightning, and thunder, and rolling clouds foretelling doom on the horizon. I wanted tree-falling crashes, and wind, and the kind of rain that’d soak you as soon as you stepped into it. I would have given anything for the weather to listen to me, when I was crying in that cafe in Paris, but the sky’s a bitch in the middle of a French summer.

So it was actually the middle of a sunny afternoon, with a lovely warm breeze pulling my hair over my face, when that bastard broke my heart.

Yes, I can write things other than fantasy. Who knew?