If Brontë, Dickens, Hartley, and Marquez were publishing today, they would have made their agents and editors happy. Their opening words grab us right away and hit the jackpot: they make us want to read more.
For writers trying to catch the attention of an agent, an editor, or a reader, the first sentence is crucial. Some agents say that they are actually more patient readers than the writing world gives them credit for. Still, we writers agonize. We want to create something that intrigues, that stands out, that suggests something of our unique writing style. But how do we achieve that? I thought a small sampling of great opening sentences might give some lessons on how to hook a reader.
The best openings seem to fall into a few categories.
The universal truth
Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with his famous statement about the difference between happy and unhappy families. I don’t know how the original Russian goes, but there’s nothing distinctive about the language of the translation. Nor is there anything special about Hartley’s opener about the strangeness of the past. But the idea is interesting and takes a moment to grasp. That first sentence tells us that the book we’re reading is about memory and isolation.
The quick mystery
It takes Brontë only ten words to unsettle us. She shoots down possibility as soon as she raises it. Why is there no possibility? Where are we? What day are we talking about? Why is “that day” so memorable that she’s referring to it that way? And who, after all, is talking?—because we know right away that this is no omniscient narrator. Ann Patchett does it almost as simply as Brontë: “When the lights went out, the accompanist kissed her.” We immediately want to know about that relationship, the setting, the ensuing plot. Marquez takes a little longer, but the effect is an intense dislocation. Later than what? Later than when? Why are they shooting the colonel, and why? How do you discover something that’s been around forever? Marquez’s first sentence signals the way his novel goes on to fold time over and blur the personal and the historical.
The style icon
There are lots of great ones here, one of them from a book I never finished and didn’t particularly like. But I’ve never forgotten the start of Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.” That generates almost enough curiosity to carry a reader through hundreds of Pynchon’s pages. Take Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, considered by many to be one of The Perfect Novels. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” You have to pay attention to a voice and an attitude like that. Then “The Dead”: “Lily the caretaker’s daughter was literally swept off her feet.” A classic case of first-person limited, signaled by Lily’s error of usage. And my sentimental favorite from Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism: “One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton.” It’s a novel about straightforward people, and its first sentence has only one word with more than one syllable, and that’s the name of the town.
These aren’t the only kinds of successful first sentences. Others sow a seed of doubt in the writer or the setting; still others introduce the elements of the plot right away; every now and then, a first line is spoken to us, in dialogue. It’s not even requisite for an excellent novel to have a catchy start. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, for instance, starts with a rather mundane sentence about a series of emails.
If these many sentences have anything in common, it’s that they alert us that something special is going on: that the writer is in control. A good first sentence places the reader squarely in the writer’s grasp, either because the voice is enticing or because the story seems–it’s too soon to know for sure–compelling. One way or another, through tone or voice or language or plot, a good opener makes the reader unable to resist the novel’s pull. No pressure, but that’s all we writers have to do.
What are some of your favorite first sentences? And, unless they’re the same, which novel openers have you found most effective?
Henriette Lazaridis Power's work has appeared in Salamander, the New England Review, The New York Times online, The Millions, Rowing News, and Writer 2.0. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing short fiction, novel excerpts, and essays exclusively in audio form.