How to start your book; opening lines

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…” that everyone has a favourite opening line. Good beginnings start in different ways. Some start big, laying out an entire character in one large paragraph that hooks you from the off (think any John Le Carré). Some do it in colourful prose that lets you smell the air,

Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways. Dogs lay belly-up and heaving in the shade. It was cooler in the hills, where Marion’s family lived. Everyone who stayed at their ranch was some relative, Marion said, blood or otherwise, and she called everyone brother or sister.”

Marion by Emma Cline

Some do it in one small sentence, leaving you with a ton of questions,

Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off a bridge.”

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (quoted on 101 books)

Donald Maass writes about how scientists puzzled as to why people are able to believe in books when they know them not to be true. The answer is in why we read. We read for an emotional experience, to feel. In that sense, he argues that for us to feel and become involved, beginnings are everything. In The Art of the Opening Sentence, Jonathan Russell Clark examines how opening lines have changed over the ages, offering titbits from some of my favourite books:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.”

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

So, how to write your own? Mary Kole of kidlit.com explains that your first line has to be yours, i.e. it couldn’t appear in any other book. And there’s a lot of advice from agents on what they’re looking for in first lines here, basically something different and something to reel them in (no one eating breakfast or travelling on a plane…).

Additionally, I know people that spend months on their first line, only to change the book so much that they have to change the beginning. All that wasted time. Counterintuitively, it might be best to leave the first line to last.


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