Novel Talk: Great Opening Lines
The second-most important sentence in a novel is its last. The most important is its first.
A weak first sentence in a novel is like a feeble, squidgy handshake with your reader. Don't make them wipe their hand after meeting your book.
Novels are perilous journeys through foreign lands. They require a strong guide, someone who throws the door open and says, "Follow me!"
Your opening sentence is that door. You are the guide. A powerful opening line inspires questions in your reader, about the trip to come: Where are we going? What happens next? How can I live without knowing how this ends?
Take the opening line of this blog post, for example. By telling you what the second-most important sentence is, I planted a question in your mind that you had to keep reading to have answered. Same works for books.
It's no secret I'm the world's biggest Dean Koontz fan. I admire everything he does, and his opening sentences are always exactly *chef's kiss* right.
Let's look at a few.
My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I'm not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist. (ODD THOMAS)
Yes, please. I like him already. In one line, Koontz has told us all we need to know to trust our guide. Odd is direct, insightful, humble, yet not all that impressed with the world. Please note: This is a kickass suspense novel that does not start, as so many workshops claim it must, with action. It starts with a literal handshake and a shrug. Love it.
Without need of a door and unconcerned about the security-system alarm that has been set, the library patron arrives at three o'clock in the morning, as quiet as any of the many of the ghosts that reside here - from those in the plays of Shakespeare to those in the stories of Russell Kirk. (ELSEWHERE)
In one sentence we get the silent setting, the unusual time, the mysterious out-of-place character, and a bookish third-person narrator we can trust to show us the answers to all the questions we have now. One line, people. One. Line.
Katie lives alone on an island. (HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD)
I mean, WHAT?! Why? How?
Whether he uses first-person or third, a long sentence or short, Koontz crafts first lines that make us want to know more.
Another of my favorite writers does this in non-fiction, writing about a subject that interests me very little - sports. I will read anything Michael Holley writes, because he writes compelling tales. His (written with/by) autobiography of the Dominican baseball player Big Papi reads like one of the best novels in the world, with one of the greatest opening lines.
For many reasons, the statistics say I shouldn't be here. (PAPI: My Story)
Holley goes on to echo this phrase later in the prologue, poetically, meditatively. Brilliant. Again, this kind of opener makes you ask questions. Why not? What do the statistics say? How did you avoid becoming a statistic?
His writing reminds me a lot of another writer's - the poet and novelist Jennifer Givhan, whose new novel RIVER WOMAN, RIVER DEMON is one of the most frightening and beautiful thrillers I've ever read. Here's its first line.
It isn't the first time I hear a woman howling from the water.
This first line hands you questions. When was the first time? Why are you hearing this creepy thing? Why are you hearing it again now?
Another unforgettable first line that sparked questions for me was in Colleen Hoover's VERITY. Hoover is the queen of making readers ask questions. That's what makes a page-turner.
I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.
Neil Gaiman is another author who puts a lot of thought into his books' introductory sentences. When I listened to the audio book for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, the first sentence hooked me and I listened to the entire book in one sleepless night. It was insanely good. Here's the line that grabbed me:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
Many books get published without great first lines. Some of them are even very good books. But they'll never be great books.
To be a great book, you need a great first line.
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