You’ve got a fantastic idea, you know your characters better than your family, the twists and turns in your plot are guaranteed to have your readers enthralled. You sit down to write your opening line and no matter what you do, your beginning reads like a soggy beige pancake. We’ve all been there, luckily there are thousands of great novels that can guide us when we’re at the end of our literary tether. I’ve examined some of my favourite openings for inspiration. How does one paragraph compel millions of readers to commit? What might work for us? Is there anything we can take away and try for ourselves?
1984, George Orwell
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.”
The beginning of 1984 is hailed as one of the greatest novel openings of all time. The first line merges the familiar with the strange, setting the tone for the rest of the novel. We can all relate to the imagine a bright cold day in April, how it feels, looks and what it reminds us of. When the clocks (multiple clocks) strike thirteen it pricks the reader and suggests this a world we can recognise, but not one that we know. Winston Smith nuzzles his chin into his breast which is a deliberately unusual use of language. When we think of nuzzling it’s a gentle gesture, one that we might associate with animals or lovers. To nuzzle suggests an enjoyment of the sensation. This contrasts with the vile wind, which darkens the image we have in our head of a gentle crisp April morn. First the day is bright, moments later it is vile and cutting, the mask slips and hints at the underlying themes. The swirl of dark personified grit following Winston into the Victory Mansions like a shadow draws the reader in. What exactly is the Victory Mansion we ask and Orwell answers with a book that has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.”
Fear and Loathing smacks established fiction in the teeth with its magical realism and long descriptive sentences. Instantly the book delivers the reader to the edge of the desert, promises an adventure and drops us into a drug trip. The opening paragraphs achieves an unreliable narrator in an enviable amount of time. They were “somewhere”, he said “something”, he saw what “looked like”. There is no certainty in the description, we can’t believe our narrator and whilst these words would weaken writing in many contexts they’re what makes this opening strong. The crazy imagery and sense of danger works perfectly, bats swooping on a convertible doing 100 miles an hour heading for Las Vegas, how? Why? Really? The book asks the reader to question what is true in the first instance and lays out an invitation to madness that is hard to refuse.
American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price is with Pierce & Pierce on twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
The introduction to American Psycho feels like an assault. The reference to Dante’s Inferno “scrawled in blood” on a chemical bank in the first line tells the reader that they’re entering a vision of hell marked with corporate greed. There are indicators of the setting with mention of Wall Street and the cab lurching through the traffic. There’s little subtlety here, everything is dark foreboding, the graffiti, the advertisement for Les Misérables, even the song the first lines of which are “The night we met I knew I needed you so, and if I had the chance I’d never let you go.” Creepy right? It also ties in the theme of wealth and status which enslaves the characters through the novel. The narrator notes that the driver is black and not American, as a reader you think so what? But this small observation works to give you an idea of how the mind of the narrator works and how he assesses the significance of others.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
“It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.”
The introduction of Catch-22 talks its way around the concept of the novel. You begin reading thinking it’s a story about Yossarian and the Chaplain, love stories intrigue and it draws the reader into the peculiar narrative, it’s not what we’re expecting. The first paragraph morphs into what feels like a parable, touching on the inescapable situation brought on by paradox. The use of doctors (people we rely upon to hold the answers) is interesting as it suggests a logical approach can’t be relied upon within the context of this story.
Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut
“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all their names.”
Kurt Vonnegut is a titan of literature, his introduction to Slaughterhouse 5 sets the novel up beautifully. He tells us that he’s writing a story that is mostly true, this builds trust with the reader, the narrator does not intend to deceive us. The language is familiar and is written as it might be spoken, which gives an authenticity and suggests the writer isn’t a best selling novelist, he’s a soldier telling us what he knows. The narrator also talks about the guys he knew, and hints at funny stories that we have to look forward to, this use of the past tense, amusing events and the mention of war come together to give the novel a nostalgic melancholy.
All of these openings teach us something different about structure and style. Most importantly they show that there is no exact blue print for a great opening line and that breaking the rules of narrative form sometimes pays off. I hope you can go away and examine your own favourite books, look closely at how they work and be able to to take something away for your own work when you get the dreaded first page blank.
Thanks as always for reading 🙂
I’d love to hear what your favourite opening line in the comments!