Opening lines – the most important?

I love opening lines.  I love reading opening lines.  I love writing opening lines.  I love being given an opening line and freewriting from there.  It is the rest of the story after the opening lines that causes me problems!

When I browse for books in bookshops, I not only read the blurb at the back but I always read the first sentence.  If I want a book from the blurb, I will probably not reject it if the opening sentence doesn’t grab me.  But for anything I am 50/50 about, it comes down to that opening sentence – if it grabs me, I will buy it, if it doesn’t, it goes back on the shelf.

The first exercise in my writing challenge deals with beginnings which aim to make the reader feel that they are plunged right into the story.  The opening sentences that I have written are not related to any characters or stories that I already have in my head or my notebooks.  Some are semi-inspired by real life, some are from little kernels of ideas that I haven’t yet thought out how to develop, some are completely random.  However, my aim with all of them is to start in the middle of the action (even if I’m not quite sure what that action is yet!)

Here they are:-

  1. The only reason I had anything to do with Ray is because the library had flooded one Monday in June.
  2. The wave smashed into my stomach, knocking me over.  I was dragged under, eyes wide open, watching the shingle roll away from the shore.
  3. The last time I really knew myself was when we went for lunch with the little white dogs.
  4. I knew it was bad news as soon as he opened the door.
  5. The election was over and I failed to get a single vote.  I didn’t even vote for myself.
  6. My mind went blank as the curtains rose.
  7. It was only a week ago that Ellie and I liberated the turtle from the old man’s garden and already we’ve added a goldfish and a cat to our collection.
  8. My mother always said I would be ruined by my handbags in the end.
  9. In the prison, we were known as “Nelson’s ladies”.
  10. I didn’t think I was famous until the day that the photographer was waiting outside my Uncle’s house to capture a picture of me in my uniform.

Reading back over these, I think that 2 and 4 probably achieve the objective of starting right in the middle of the action the best, but out of the list, I am most interested in seeing where number 5 will go.

So that is my effort.  Here are some of my favourite first sentences from my bookshelves:-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl” (The Other Hand, Chris Cleeve)

My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen” (City of Thieves, David Benioff)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; Susie first.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973” (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere” (Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

Any one of my favourite ever openings, on the strength of which I bought a book that I previously had no desire to read:-

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born,  and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents ere occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kiind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger)

I was sold when I read that first sentence, just for the directness of it and the authenticity of the character’s voice.  After reading all of these opening lines, I knew that I was in good hands for the rest of the book.

The opening lines are the writer’s first chance to introduce the character and to create something engaging to make the reader want to read on.  To leave the reader with questions to which they need to find the answers.  To make the reader want to know the character better.  A story can’t rely on it’s opening line alone – the rest of the story needs to deliver what the opening line promises.  If the writer is able to achieve this, then as readers, we are in for a treat.

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Posted on August 20, 2013, in My writing, The Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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