The opening few lines of a book are probably the most important the writer writes. They represent the key to the door, the invitation for the reader to step through and enter the story. Openings are the hook. Obviously the rest of the story must live up to the opening, but without the hook of the beginning, the rest of the story might not get a look in.
Opening lines may set the scene, the tone, the style, the action; they are a unique hook individual to the author, and running through them will be the voice that defines the author – and if you like that author’s voice you come back for more, for more stories by that author. As a reader, if I love one book by a particular writer, I’ll want to read everything else by that writer. “...there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Stephen King
I have an odd habit of writing opening lines, opening paragraphs, and occasionally opening chapters. I’ll work on them when I’m in between books and projects, rewriting them, refining them; I’ll add to the collection too if I’m feeling inspired. I’ve got a whole file of them, full of ideas for stories in a variety of genres, full of characters and a world of voices. I’ll use some of them in creative writing workshops, allowing the pupils to choose an opening paragraph to continue a story. Often I’ll use them myself. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the way I find my next book, the next voice. Having them on the back burner feels very much like having a safety blanket. I don’t really plot a book, I’m not a plotter but a panster, who lets the opening paragraph take me on a journey. The back burner simmers away until one of the openings reaches out and grabs me, ripe and ready to become something more. I used to think that this habit was peculiar to me, until I talked to a few other writers, and recently I read that Stephen King agonises over his opening lines. So maybe I’m not that odd after all! I bet many other writers share the agony over the opening lines...
Here are a couple of mine: “It’s tough being the new kid, but when you’re not the only one it’s not so bad. The problem was Sam was always the new kid and always the only one...” The Long Weekend
“I sat staring into space. It was empty, the way space should be, vast, endless, and empty. Except it wasn’t vast and endless. There were four walls and a small window. I was lucky to have a cell with a window...” The Poet, A short story.
Here are just a few of my favourite opening lines:
“Once upon a time...”
“Kidnapping children is never a good idea; all the same, sometimes it has to be done...” Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Charlotte’s Web by E B White
“If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you’d be better off reading some other book.” The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.
“Against the white cliffs, the girl in the red dress was as vivid as a drop of blood.” Cruel Summer by James Dawson.
“They come to kill me early in the morning. At 6 am when the sky is pink and misty grey, the seagulls are crying overhead and the beach is empty.” Almost True by Keren David
“When Ben got home from school, he found something good, something bad and something worse...” The Catkin by Nick Green
“My life might have been so different had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded...” The Vanishing of Katherina Linden by Helen Grant
Here’s a link to a fun first lines quiz from The Guardian to mull over while you’re having a break: http://www.theguardian.com/books/quiz/2010/mar/24/first-lines-quiz
What are your favourite first lines?
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