If readers don’t stick with you past your opening lines then the rest is irrelevant. Everwalker wrote a great piece about this, and I recommend that you check it out. Based on an idea from Scott Bell, her approach is to start with the character and a sense of forward motion.

American Gods

To take an example from Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary American Gods:

‘Shadow had done three years in prison.’

In those seven words we have the character, we know something about him, and we get the sense that things are changing – he ‘had done’ three years in prison, and now presumably he’s coming out. Things are changing.

American Gods

Gaiman’s opening also raises lots of questions. Why was Shadow in prison? What will he do once he gets out? What sort of person has a name like Shadow? It gets you on the hook and reels you in towards the rest of the story.

Neuromancer

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, well-read reader that you are. ‘What about Neuromancer by William Gibson, possibly the most famous opening line in science fiction? That doesn’t have character or forward motion. You’re a fool Knighton, a fool and a fraud!’

And it sure looks like you have a point:

‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

But even Gibson, having delivered that killer line, then cuts to character and motion:

‘ ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat.’

Voila, character and motion, Case in conflict with the crowd as he tries to get somewhere. And the following lines tie character and setting together, showing what sort of place Case spends his time in and how he perceives it. That opening line might not directly introduce Case, but it does tell us something about his world and the way he sees it, and this is a story that’s a lot about exposing that world to us through Case.

More like guidelines

‘Rules are there so that you think before you break them.’ – Terry Pratchett

Any guideline needs to be treated with some flexibility. Gibson achieves the same thing as Gaiman, he just waits for the second sentence. But he also varies it – his story is about taking us into a completely different world, and it needs to sell that difference from the start. Gibson’s selling us alienation, Gaiman the brutal truth of a man looking to move on from his past.

What are your favourite opening lines, both that you’ve read and that you’ve written? What do they give the reader to keep them reading? Share them below, lets see how well this rule holds.

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Comments
  1. lektu says:

    Many Borges’ stories start with a killer sentence (or, usually, a killer paragraph):

    – “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below-one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first – identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite – if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication? I prefer to dream that burnished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite…” (The Library of Babel)

    – “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. The mirror troubled the depths of a corridor in a country house on Gaona Street in Ramos Mejia; the encyclopedia is fallaciously called The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917) and is a literal but delinquent reprint of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1902. The event took place some five years ago. Bioy Casares had had dinner with me that evening and we became lengthily engaged in a vast polemic concerning the composition of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers – very few readers – to perceive an atrocious or banal reality. From the remote depths of the corridor, the mirror spied upon us. We discovered (such a discovery is inevitable in the late hours of the night) that mirrors hare something monstrous about them. Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number or men. I asked him the origin of this memorable observation and he answered that it was reproduced in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in its article on Uqbar.” (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius)

    – “Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment. Look here– my right hand has no index finger. Look here–through this gash in my cape you can see on my stomach a crimson tattoo–it is the second letter, Beth. On nights when the moon is full, this symbol gives me power over men with the mark of Gimel, but it subjects me to those with the Aleph, who on nights when there is no moon owe obedience to those marked with the Gimel. In the half-light of dawn, in a cellar, standing before a black altar, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls. Once, for an entire lunar year, I was declared invisible–I would cry out and no one would heed my call, I would steal bread and not be beheaded. I have known that thing the Greeks knew not–uncertainty. In a chamber of brass, as I faced the strangler’s silent scarf, hope did not abandon me; in the river of delights, panic has not failed me. Heraclides Ponticus reports, admiringly, that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, and before that, Euphorbus, and before that, some other mortal; in order to recall similar vicissitudes, I have no need of death, nor even of imposture.” (The Lottery in Babylon)

    In each case, it’s quite hard to stop just there, isn’t it?

    • I particularly like that last example. I’m intrigued by the contrast between being a proconsul and being a slave that his character, and apparently everybody else in that society, has been through.

  2. G.B. Koening says:

    I think Author Edward Bulwer-Lytton said it best in his novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    No, really, I’d have to say it was from Cordwainer Smith’s, Scanners Live in Vain:

    “Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgement, not by sight. He saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg was broken. It was not. Scanner to the core he had to scan himself…”

    Cordwainer Smith was an amazing writer. Very mid-twentieth century, but I always appreciated the style that came from that era.

    As for my writing, well, this is what I’m working with at the moment:

    (Name) hadn’t noticed. How could he have? Like most days, he was otherwise engaged, eyes half closed and brooding, lost in heady contemplation. Mind you, these were deep thoughts, comprised mostly of high school girls, Gibson guitars and awesomely fast convertibles…red convertibles.

    But like most stories I write, the beginning will undoubtedly be edited!

    • I like the question implicit in your opening there – what is it he hasn’t noticed? It’s piquing my curiosity for what comes next.

      But you’re right, there’s barely a story in the world that actually starts with the first words the author put down.

  3. Eleanor Wood says:

    I rather like the opening to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, first in the Dark Tower series:

    ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

    Movement, atmosphere, intrigue, setting… it kinda has everything, and in relatively few words.

    • I love that one too. Read it for the first time last year and it was one of those openings that grabbed me straight away. Have you read the other Dark Tower books? And what did you think of them?

      • Eleanor Wood says:

        I’m gradually working my way through the series… Finished the third book recently and need to get hold of the fourth! Have you read any of the others? I’m really enjoying them. The pace picks up quite rapidly from book two onwards, with King’s marvellous detail and atmospheric style. Serious page-turners.

        • I’ve got book two in my to-read pile, but that pile never seems to get any shorter. It’ll probably be my next fiction read after Lord of Emperors.

          I enjoyed the first book and it’s odd mishmash of events. Pleased to hear that the pace picks up, because it didn’t always feel like there was a lot of forward momentum.

          • Eleanor Wood says:

            Yeah, I know what you mean… The Gunslinger sets the stage nicely, but is more introspective than the rest of the series. It starts getting a lot more intriguing in the second book, in which new central characters join the cast, and the third one (The Waste Lands) was unputdownable. I’d definitely recommend the series based on what I’ve read so far.

  4. Sue Archer says:

    Great stuff! I don’t always remember first lines, but I always remembered the opening of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” How did this happen, and why? You need to read the whole story to find out. Out of curiosity, I went back to Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, which is another of my favourite books. Opening line: “I have to.” In this case, it’s the main character Elena needing to change into a werewolf, because she’s postponed the shift too long. It’s so simple, but it sums up a lot about the character and what’s happening in her life as a werewolf who desperately wants to be human. I’m going to keep watching for the forward motion!

    • Cool examples. I think that one from Bitten’s particularly interesting because it sounds like it’s setting up a theme of the story as well – one of compulsion and grappling with her werewolf life. Or am I reading too much into it?

  5. […] written before about the value of a great opening line, and it was one of the things that drew me into King’s The Dark Tower. A great opening line […]

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