In the beginning
Right now at Anythink Wright Farms we have a display called “To Great Endings and New Beginnings.” At one table are books and films with memorable last lines, while the other table features, you guessed it, items with memorable opening lines.
I’ve been fascinated with great last lines for years; I even used to have a When Harry Met Sally-style predilection for picking up books and reading their last lines first – a habit that eventually backfired when I read the last line of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and promptly had a major character’s death spoiled for me. (For more on John le Carré, click here.)
I still love and appreciate a good last line. However, in the end (no pun intended), I must confess to a preference for a good opening line. The opening line of a book (and to a lesser extent a film) is like a handshake with the audience, inviting us into the world of the story and, in ways both subtle and overt, letting us know what we’re in for.
A good opening won’t compensate for a bad story, but a bad opening often halts readers in their tracks. Like a delicious first bite of a meal, a good opening entices me to keep going; a bad opening just makes me want to set the whole thing aside and move onto something else.
So what constitutes a good opening, beyond simply making the reader want to keep reading? Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what doesn’t work. “Never open with weather,” cautioned Elmore Leonard in an article for the New York Times. Leonard’s point, tongue-in-cheek though it may be, is that a long, scene-setting description of storm clouds is liable to bore most readers who will “leaf ahead looking for people.”
With this precept in mind, it’s not surprising that Leonard penned some absolutely fantastic openings. Here are a few of my favorites:
The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.
– Glitz (1985)
The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin's place to tell him they were coming to raid his still.
– The Moonshine War (1969)
One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.
– Gold Coast (1980)
All of these openings thrust us into the middle of some sort of conflict, either life-threatening or domestic. This tactic is so old there’s a Latin phrase for it (in medias res, or “in the middle of things”). But Leonard’s skill with openings goes beyond simply plopping the reader down in the middle of a juicy situation. What makes the above openings really work is how they force us to ask questions.
In the excerpt from Glitz we know someone named Vincent is going to get shot. But this single fact leads to all sorts of tantalizing questions. Why is he going to get shot? Who is going to shoot him? How did he “see it coming”? And who is Vincent? A cop? A criminal? An innocent bystander? With one nine-word sentence, Leonard has us behaving like children, excited and anxious and asking why why why, and what happens next. In other words, he’s got us exactly where he wants us. (For more on Elmore Leonard, click here.)
Some of my other favorite kinds of openings begin with what the writer Tyler Miller calls “the oddball opening.” In these openings, we’re presented with “something so peculiar, so entirely out of place, that the reader is compelled to continue reading in order to understand this strangeness or contradiction.” Miller gives the example of George Orwell’s 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
Unlike the excerpts from Elmore Leonard, the conflict at the beginning of The Golden Compass isn’t immediately obvious. Yet we’re still compelled to ask questions, like: Why do Lyra and her dæmon need to keep out of sight of the kitchen? What are they up to? But most importantly: what is a dæmon?
Sometimes the oddball opening can feel cutesy or manipulative, but deployed in the hands of masters like Orwell or Pullman, this kind of opening will use readers’ curiosity and confusion as the lure to draw them into strange and terrifying worlds.
There are certainly good books that have weak openings; I’m sure the converse is true as well, and that plenty of bad books have good openings (though I tend not to finish bad books). But a good opening, as Stephen King once wrote, has power. It tells us, “Come in here. You want to know about this.”
What are some of your favorite opening sentences? Drop me a line in the comments. And be sure to come by Wright Farms during the next month to check out our “To Great Endings and New Beginnings” display.