Ask the Editor: The power of the opening sentence – 6 tips

Q : Why is the first line so important?

A : Agents and acquiring editors will quit reading if your opening sentence doesn’t zing. Any writer seeking publication or the devoted attention of a reader browsing in a bookstore needs to craft that first sentence, revising, revising, revising, until it just hums.

One way to prepare for this is to read your own favorite first lines. Here are a couple of mine, followed by 6 suggestions for what makes a good first sentence.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson) Talk about ominous, edgy, hallucinogenic – this one, which first appeared in 1971, has become the rallying cry of several subsequent generations of young men in search of an identity. The prince of Gonzo was proud of this sentence, one of the few he wrote quickly and easily.

“Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick by Herman Melville) Another muscular attention riveter, since 1851. The power is in the use of the second person, direct address: “Yo! Reader! Call me by my name. And it’s Ishmael! Not Ahab! I’m telling this story…”

What makes a good first line? 6 tips

Here are a few ideas:

1. Get to the point

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Don’t hope that readers will stay with you while you set the scene or deliver an “information dump” prior to getting started on the real stuff. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) is a great example of skipping right to the essential passion, the bottom line.

2. Lead to something

The job of the first sentence is to compel you to read the next one. Look at this opener: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925) “OK,” one responds. What was it? What’s your story?

3. Shock and awe

They shoot the white girl first.

Stop us dead in our tracks with fear, distress, dismay. Like “They shoot the white girl first.” (Paradise by Toni Morrison, 1998) Wow. What an awful image. What’s going on? What caused this horrible thing to happen?

4. Give us an attitude

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

This can be obvious, like “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951)

Or it can be more subtle, as in “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, 1925) There’s just a trace of defiance and opposition to expectations, but oh so powerful.

5. Be controversial

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Readers are still debating whether “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877, translated by Constance Garnett) is totally brilliant or completely wrong, just the opposite, and deliberately so, once you read the book itself. Perhaps Tolstoy really meant unhappy families are all alike and every happy family is happy in its own way.

6. Don’t always avoid the cliché

Sometimes they work ironically. Many people say “It was a dark and stormy night…” (Paul Clifford by Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830) is a joke, but I’ve always felt pulled in to read more. The problem may have been that these were actually only the first few words of a much longer sentence which inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest to celebrate the worst examples of extravagantly overwritten opening lines.

The original sentence was “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Phew. Now that sentence needs an editor.

But consider how long the basic image has lasted, with some help from Snoopy.

What are some of your favorite first sentences?

25 Responses to Ask the Editor: The power of the opening sentence – 6 tips

  1. Andre

    “It was a dark and stormy night” is also the first sentence of one of my longtime favorites, A Wrinkle in Time.

  2. Daisy Sohne

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1

  3. Ruth Cruz

    1801–I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.(Emily Bronte–Wuthering Heights

  4. Anonymous

    What do you think of Emily Bronte as a writer? Thank you.

  5. Paul Mikos

    “I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair out of place. We are all alone here and we are dead.” –Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

    I know it is more than one sentence but you must admit it is a great opening.

    Another favorite first line is from Albert Camus’ The Stranger, “Mother died today.”

  6. Daria

    “Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (“The Towers of Trebizond” by Rose Macaulay, 1956)

  7. Harmony

    “Why is the first line so important?” BIG SMILE AND WINK

  8. Matt McConnell

    “HE LAY flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees” (Ernest Hemingway).

    “Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara” (Jack Kerouac).

  9. The Book Deal Is A Rich Resource

    [...] Rinzler’s blog does indeed give an inside view of the arcane world of trade publishing, plus some darn good information for writers. Take today’s post: Ask the Editor: The power of the opening sentence – 6 tips [...]

  10. Christa Allan » What’s your line?

    [...] Tips on opening sentences from Alan Rinzler’s blog, The Book Deal. [...]

  11. Mark Anderson

    The opening sentence to Catcher in the Rye is awful, in my humble opinion. It’s long and wheezy, when it should be short and snappy. The book itself is one I never got my head around, I know it’s a “classic” but that doesn’t mean we all have to like it does it?

    (I really liked Daisy Sohne’s comment. She mentioned the opening line from one of the best selling fictions ever written. You can’t argue with that.)

  12. Anonymous

    James Agee’s brilliant A Death In The Family opened: ““We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

    It’s more difficult, and thus more instructive, to udentify the great closing lines; the second bookend and reward for patient and persistent readers.

    Thanks for your blog!

  13. Stephanie Cox

    I’m working on an essay now, and the first line of the novel I’m analysing is: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony, eating the dog…’

    now tell me that isn’t effective.

  14. Alan Rinzler

    Thanks to all you smart and interesting people who left such good comments. We’ll do a blog on last sentences shortly.

    Alan

  15. Steven Axelrod

    Here are a few of my favorites:
    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (Orwell,1984)
    “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton” (The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
    “Years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant afternoon when he father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Marquez
    “I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone, and, findoing you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it’s important,the matter is more often important to him than to you.” (Cakes and Ale, Maugham. Here the second sentence pack the dry punchline:”When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favor most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds.”
    “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain)
    “All Children, except one, grow up.” (Peter Pan, Barrie)

  16. Shane Durgee

    I’m partial to the opening of the most recent Pulitzer winner, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.

    “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”

  17. Shane Durgee

    (I know I’m late without a pass, but I like to haunt old literary blogs and this is one of my favorite topics.)

  18. Pennsylvania » Moby Dick for the Digital Learner

    [...] Ask the Editor: The power of the opening sentence – 6 tips [...]

  19. Jeff Valdez

    “There is no place for incandescant light in this town.”

  20. Tim Sunderland

    Here is the opening line of one of my future novels:

    I do not remember a time when I did not know that Rock Hudson was gay.

  21. Mara

    I love the opening line of Eragon: “Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.”

  22. India Malpas

    Probably misquoted – The boys arrived early for the hanging.

    I was twelve when I first started spying on my brother. – not sure where I read that.

  23. Jeanne Supin

    Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark — weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more — but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.

    Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

  24. Mac

    “The small boys came early to the hanging.” Ken Follett, “Pillars of the Earth.” Read it in 1991 and never will forget it.

  25. What?

    “There was a wall.” ~ Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

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