Opening lines

One of the hardest things I find in writing both fiction and non-fiction is coming up with a good opening sentence or paragraph. Much of my anxiety is probably due to my conviction that a reader needs to be hooked right off if there is to be any hope of them reading further.

I take some solace in the great number of novels and stories that are justly famous for their first lines. Melville's "Call me Ishmael" is probably the best-known. There are hundreds of great ones. Some of these might include:

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

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumors which agitated the maritime population, and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.

For some time past, vessels had been met by "an enormous thing," a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale. —Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.—HG Wells, The War of the Worlds

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So what do you think was the best opening line or paragraph of something you have written?

Comments

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    One of the hardest things I find in writing both fiction and non-fiction is coming up with a good opening sentence or paragraph. Much of my anxiety is probably due to my conviction that a reader needs to be hooked right off if there is to be any hope of them reading further.

    Possibly, but how many do give it a thought? I am not sure I do. I try to make it all of the same hookability. There are times I find a book I am reading boring for quite a few chapters, but seeing as I have paid for it I keep at it, then discover once in to the story I cannot put it down.

    I take some solace in the great number of novels and stories that are justly famous for their first lines. Melville's "Call me Ishmael" is probably the best-known. There are hundreds of great ones. Some of these might include:

    Maybe, but I wonder how many people do know that quote or even where it is from? Or if the success of the story would have been any different with a different opening line?

    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

    Never read it or seen it, so have never heard that quote, Sorry! Although a film adaptation was filmed close to my house.  :-)

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

    Never read or seen that also. And have never heard anyone quote that.

    The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumors which agitated the maritime population, and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.

    For some time past, vessels had been met by "an enormous thing," a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale. —Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

    I have read and seen that. But can I recall any words from it at all? No. Sorry.

    "When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

    Sounds interesting. Very poetic. Any dragons or spaceships in it?

    "To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

    A famous man and book. A famous first line? I have no idea! I suspect the media publicity he got for becoming a 'wanted 'man had a lot to do with the sales.

    It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    I think I saw that as a film. Which does not count I suppose.

    No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.—HG Wells, The War of the Worlds

    That would have had a huge effect when first published. And of course the panic it caused when read out on the radio. Some people thought it was a news flash. But I doubt it would have the same effect if newly published today.

    ==========

    Few book covers have the storys' opening lines on the cover, so there's more to it than a decent opening line.

    So what do you think was the best opening line or paragraph of something you have written?

    No idea! That's not for me to judge I would suspect. Here's a few though -

    - The sun beats down on a medium-sized maternity hospital in England and it is 11.34 am, August, 2012. -

    - It is a bright summers day, bright for Foristian that is. Not a cloud in the sky, because they have not been scheduled for that day. In the near distance the very gently lapping sea can be heard along with seabirds whistling. - - Milly Morris, Christened Peed at school (but not Peed Morris) which was funny, apparently, forty-five-ish, single, still, although she had dabbled. Once almost attractive, possibly still to some. Short, still, of course, but a bit roundish, now. Not unfit but showing a bit of ‘spread’ and droop. You know how it is. On the surface not the brightest of buttons. Slow would be more to the truth, however, because she could not really be called stupid by any one who truly knows her. She keeps her own counsel, as they say, had worked for the London Knob’s Staff Agency as a house cleaner for hire for years. Fifteen in fact. Or was it twenty? It seems far longer. That’s what her job title is, anyway. House cleaner, although fully trained as Housekeeper, too, not to mention learning economics, business management, and even marketing, at night-school and occasional day-school, because it was cheap, and she had no interest in pottery or painting for pleasure, or any other reason. Not that she made use of those skills. Her job is alright, but a bit random, and only usually for a few months of each year due to many of the residents of a certain kind of place only living in the country intermittently, and putting the places in mothballs when not in residence. The buildings they were in being highly secure. She was always paid a retainer, though. She had wondered why LKSA had not kept that, however, the tight ... that they are. She always thought she was lucky to have a job. People keep saying so, so it must be true. - - It’s eight-ten am in some random grubby warehouse on the edge of a just as random town in a random part of England. Jim is not even sure what is stored in it, but as long as it’s legitimate, does not care, it’s just another random job, but apparently he’s ‘lucky’ to have it. -

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • One of the hardest things I find in writing both fiction and non-fiction is coming up with a good opening sentence or paragraph. Much of my anxiety is probably due to my conviction that a reader needs to be hooked right off if there is to be any hope of them reading further.

    Possibly, but how many do give it a thought? I am not sure I do. I try to make it all of the same hookability. There are times I find a book I am reading boring for quite a few chapters, but seeing as I have paid for it I keep at it, then discover once in to the story I cannot put it down.

    Perhaps more authors than you think! A great many successful professional authors I know do it give some thought.

    And think of the inherent danger in the scenario you describe. Do you really want someone sticking with one of your books for no other reason than they wanted to make sure they hadn't wasted their money?

    I take some solace in the great number of novels and stories that are justly famous for their first lines. Melville's "Call me Ishmael" is probably the best-known. There are hundreds of great ones. Some of these might include:

    Maybe, but I wonder how many people do know that quote or even where it is from? Or if the success of the story would have been any different with a different opening line?

    Again, more than you might think! I suppose since the book was a financial failure when it was first published, you might be able to make the argument that the first line perhaps failed to do its job!

    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

    Never read it or seen it, so have never heard that quote, Sorry! Although a film adaptation was filmed close to my house.  :-)

    Even made it onto Jeopardy once!

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

    Never read or seen that also. And have never heard anyone quote that.

    Really? It's even made it into Bartlett's!

    "When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

    Sounds interesting. Very poetic. Any dragons or spaceships in it?

    Nope! But a fabulous book nevertheless! And a very disturbing one!

    ==========

    Few book covers have the storys' opening lines on the cover, so there's more to it than a decent opening line.

    Well, of course!

    So what do you think was the best opening line or paragraph of something you have written?

    No idea! That's not for me to judge I would suspect. Here's a few though -

    - The sun beats down on a medium-sized maternity hospital in England and it is 11.34 am, August, 2012. -

    I like that!

    - It is a bright summers day, bright for Foristian that is. Not a cloud in the sky, because they have not been scheduled for that day. In the near distance the very gently lapping sea can be heard along with seabirds whistling. -Nice! - Milly Morris, Christened Peed at school (but not Peed Morris) which was funny, apparently, forty-five-ish, single, still, although she had dabbled. Once almost attractive, possibly still to some. Short, still, of course, but a bit roundish, now. Not unfit but showing a bit of ‘spread’ and droop. You know how it is. On the surface not the brightest of buttons. Slow would be more to the truth, however, because she could not really be called stupid by any one who truly knows her. She keeps her own counsel, as they say, had worked for the London Knob’s Staff Agency as a house cleaner for hire for years. Fifteen in fact. Or was it twenty? It seems far longer. That’s what her job title is, anyway. House cleaner, although fully trained as Housekeeper, too, not to mention learning economics, business management, and even marketing, at night-school and occasional day-school, because it was cheap, and she had no interest in pottery or painting for pleasure, or any other reason. Not that she made use of those skills. Her job is alright, but a bit random, and only usually for a few months of each year due to many of the residents of a certain kind of place only living in the country intermittently, and putting the places in mothballs when not in residence. The buildings they were in being highly secure. She was always paid a retainer, though. She had wondered why LKSA had not kept that, however, the tight ... that they are. She always thought she was lucky to have a job. People keep saying so, so it must be true. - - It’s eight-ten am in some random grubby warehouse on the edge of a just as random town in a random part of England. Jim is not even sure what is stored in it, but as long as it’s legitimate, does not care, it’s just another random job, but apparently he’s ‘lucky’ to have it. -


  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    Not sure how great it is as an opening, but here goes.

    Light, Dark, and Shadow are needed for Balance. Light without Dark or Dark without Light has no Shadow and no definition. Light without Dark holds at its heart unbending conformity. Dark without Light holds at its heart unending fear. The presence of Shadow lends Light and Dark contrast and definition while it provides Balance. For any Race or People to survive it must encompass the Triad; Light, Dark, Shadow... Excerpt from "The Age of The Great Waenstil Conflicts – A People's Tragedy", 1604th Edition, 2nd Printing

  • Here's the opening sentence of my Return to Skull Island...

    My search for the great white armadillo had justified neither my expectations nor investment, both of which were exhausted, leaving me depressed and penniless in Plankton, New Mexico.

  • My car exploded.

    First Line of my _Flashing in the Eye of the Impeller_, now out of print for revision.

    Dr. Winter hung up the phone, annoyed and perturbed.

    First line of my _The Atheist's Tale_ (under the pseudonym Og Keep).

    My other opening lines are more practical and less artistic.

    As for Melville's Call me Ishmael, I've used it in coffee bars when the cashier wished to know my name. Sometimes -- rarely -- they even get the reference. The profound thing about the line is that it gives us an immediate insight into the character: A outcast son, forced to seek his own way in a strange land (in this case, the "land" is at sea).

    I was surprised that you omitted It was the best of times; it was the worst of times from Dickens' _A Tale of Two Cities_. Most of the book is very dry, but it had a few great lines, that one included. Or there's Marley was dead; to begin with. First line of _A Christmas Carol_, and a great opening gambit. That "Marley was dead" line is pure gold. The mind runs amok with where the story might go from there.

    I'm straining to remember the opening line of Orwell's _1984_, but it mentioned Winston Smith and the clock striking thirteen, which is a very ominous place to start.
  • Here's the opening sentence of my Return to Skull Island...

    My search for the great white armadillo had justified neither my expectations nor investment, both of which were exhausted, leaving me depressed and penniless in Plankton, New Mexico.

    If that's in the Velda series, then it's a great start. If it were a more serious work, I'd expect it to be along the lines of a Jack Keriouac or a Paul Theroux story, from that line.

  • I was surprised that you omitted It was the best of times; it was the worst of times from Dickens' _A Tale of Two Cities_. Most of the book is very dry, but it had a few great lines, that one included. Or there's Marley was dead; to begin with. First line of _A Christmas Carol_, and a great opening gambit. That "Marley was dead" line is pure gold. The mind runs amok with where the story might go from there.

    There were hundreds to choose from! 
     :o :)  
  • Skoob_ym said:
    Here's the opening sentence of my Return to Skull Island...

    My search for the great white armadillo had justified neither my expectations nor investment, both of which were exhausted, leaving me depressed and penniless in Plankton, New Mexico.

    If that's in the Velda series, then it's a great start. If it were a more serious work, I'd expect it to be along the lines of a Jack Keriouac or a Paul Theroux story, from that line.
    Glad you like it! It's not one of the Velda stories, though... But by the same token, it's certainly a flattering comparison you made!
  • "My car exploded"!!! That is absolutely terrific!
  • The opening paragraph of "The Iron Tempest":

    It was not until the two exhausted knights took a pause in their mutually ferocious pummeling that they discovered, to their shared astonishment and consternation, that the beautiful damsel over whom they had been murdering one another was gone. She had taken her horse and fled, which they ruefully agreed was absolutely Not Playing the Game.
  • The first sentence of "Return to the Center":

    How can I describe the extraordinary sensation produced by the return of my uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, and myself from our quest for the center of the earth? 
  • Here's mine from a short story called "Untitled Summoning":

    Two kinds of people live in Brenton: farmers and soap makers.

    On a side note, this sent me down a rabbit hole of reading the first page (and in some cases more) of a lot of old work. Very rewarding to look back on words I wrote and forgot about, some for many years.
  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
  • From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
    Brilliant!
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Our friends do not come to our house any more.

    The ones we have left that is.

    They are always welcome at our door

    But they always give us a miss.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    Thank you, Ron. I might dust that one off and finish it. My mother had a way of killing aspiration...
    From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
    Brilliant!

  • From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
    Brilliant!

    I have to agree. It sets the tone for the entire story. The idea of the character and a manager being so blase about a corpse on the table, and yet so emphatic about a spoiled meal... Clearly, this is not the usual sort of restaurant.

    I think that's the  key: A first line that ignites the mind.
  • Our friends do not come to our house any more.

    The ones we have left that is.

    They are always welcome at our door

    But they always give us a miss.

    This could become a snappy opening line, but it's a bit bland. If it were to suggest why the friends don't come around...

    "Our friends do not come to our house any more; not since the incident with Cousin Belva and the corkscrew. It was very much an accident, so far as we can tell, but they seem unconvinced."

    See how the reader is teased with things to be explained as the story goes on?
  • Thank you, Ron. I might dust that one off and finish it. My mother had a way of killing aspiration...
    From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
    Brilliant!

    I can't speak directly the situation, but I find that toxic people need to be isolated. Or as a former girlfriend used to say, "Whiners play alone."

    I'd encourage you to revisit that one, most definitely.
  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    My mother died a few years ago [ten years after her strokes], and I hadn't seen her since my father's funeral back in '99 as I long ago had grown weary of her attitude towards anything of which she did not approve.

    Perhaps I should dust off "Wilford's Tail" as well.
    ****************************************************

    Wilford walked along the shoreline of the island that had been his solitary prison since his ship had been torpedoed. His one damning consolation at being the sole survivor was food, several well-sealed cases of rations destined for island hopping troops had washed ashore. Unfortunately, after a year Wilford was heartily sick of canned corned beef hash.
     
    When he rounded a small pile of boulders he stopped, while his mouth sagged slowly open. Next to the boulders a mermaid was sunning herself on the beach. Her long damp hair trailed down her back, and as she half-turned to smile at him her full luscious breasts virtually begged to be caressed.
     
    Wilford let his eyes travel down her ripe inviting torso to her lower body, and as he gazed longingly at her tail he wondered how long it would take to cook -- he was damned tired of canned corned beef hash.
    Skoob_ym said:
    Thank you, Ron. I might dust that one off and finish it. My mother had a way of killing aspiration...
    From "The Gastronome's Lament"

    I wasn't upset by the fact that a corpse landed on my table when the first course was served, I was upset because the manager refused to discount my meal after most of it landed on the floor.
    Brilliant!

    I can't speak directly the situation, but I find that toxic people need to be isolated. Or as a former girlfriend used to say, "Whiners play alone."

    I'd encourage you to revisit that one, most definitely.

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    edited February 4

    This could become a snappy opening line, but it's a bit bland. If it were to suggest why the friends don't come around...

    "Our friends do not come to our house any more; not since the incident with Cousin Belva and the corkscrew. It was very much an accident, so far as we can tell, but they seem unconvinced."

    See how the reader is teased with things to be explained as the story goes on?

    Not really, as it's nothing to do with the story and does not rhyme, and the rest of the poem says why.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Em_PressEm_Press Professor
    That sounds like a great read, Ron.
     A citizen of the world.

  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    Em_Press said:
    That sounds like a great read, Ron.
    Aww, shucks! Thanks!
  • Em_PressEm_Press Professor
    I think everyone should post links to their works.
     A citizen of the world.

  • Em_PressEm_Press Professor
    "My name is Komei and I am a coward."

    From my novella Komei.
     A citizen of the world.

  • Em_PressEm_Press Professor
    Ok, Ron, the Iron Tempest for my daughter. Great cover. Can't preview interior on Smart phone but I know you're a great writer.
     A citizen of the world.

  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    Em_Press said:
    Ok, Ron, the Iron Tempest for my daughter. Great cover. Can't preview interior on Smart phone but I know you're a great writer.
    Thanks!
  • The opening intro to the sequel of my first novel, "The White Tree"

    "The skies were angry, dark and unrelenting.  Black heavy drops of rain fell, breaking small twigs and branches off the trees.  Deafening claps of thunder, rolled in concession one after the other, causing the very earth below to shake under its volume.  The frightening crackle of lightning exploded violently like fireworks, illuminating an outline of a large shadow that was slowly rising up from the depth of the surrounding terrain."
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