Opening Lines You Wished You’d Written

Two days ago I published my first WIPpet Wednesday post, which featured the opening few paragraphs from my current work in progress, my children’s novel, Time Shifters. The comments I received from the other WIPpeteers were encouraging (thanks everyone!), and it’s good to know that the first line and the opening scene of Time Shifters has the potential to hook readers.

Writing the post and reading the subsequent comments got me thinking about great opening lines of novels. A successful opening line should immediately hook the reader. It can be intriguing, funny, thought provoking, beautiful or clever, but above all, it’s got to grab the reader and make them want to keep reading.

One of my favourite books of all time, the seductive and beautifully crafted, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, opens with the following line:

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with – given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century.

It’s a powerful image that Enger creates with that first line, and Peace Like a River is a book that stays with you long after you’ve read the last word.

As famous and well-loved opening lines go, J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit, has one of the very best:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

 

Simple, to the point, but very effective. The ensuing description of Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole with its ‘perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle‘, is not only memorable but draws you in to what promises to be an incredible story.

Then of course there’s the literary classic, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen that opens with the infamous line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

 

Reading that line conjures up the romance of days gone by, the elegance of the Regency period, lively society parties and, for anyone who saw the 1996 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, an image of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, in a wet shirt and breeches after he’d been swimming in a lake.

A more recent book I’ve read that immediately hooked me was Stieg Larsson’s first line of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

It happened every year, was almost a ritual.

 

What happened every year? What was almost a ritual? You immediately want to find out more and that’s all you can really hope for from an opening line of a book – that the reader wants to continue the journey and invest their time in your characters and story.

What novels do you consider to have the best opening lines ever written?

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6 Comments

  1. I love Pride and Prejudice – it really sums up the whole novel and an era of time really. (In this day and age the end of that sentence would be quite different).

  2. You both have really good taste – that is my favourite novel of all time!! You’re right Raewyn, that opening sentence says it all. It’s almost as if Jane Austen is spelling out what her book is about in that one sentence. I always think that although times change and society changes, people do not and that is one of the reasons why Jane Austen is still so popular. Her characters are believable, memorable and make us want to revisit the novel time and again. I must read P&P again soon – it’s been too long!

    • It certainly says something about the quality of the writing and story for Pride and Prejudice to still be going strong 200 years later. Something we can all aspire to I think!

  3. I have to say my favorite (classic) is “Marley was dead to begin with.” My favorite contemporary is probably from Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter”: “On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream; I was able to throw my incompetent jack… of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.”

    • You can’t go wrong with a bit of Dickens. I’ve not read ‘Monster Hunter’ but that opening line has done what all great opening lines should do, which is made me want to carry on reading!

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