Reading,  Writing

Great beginnings

What are your favorite opening lines? What makes the opening sentence of a book compel you to read on, and do you think those all-important first words should shout or whisper? Here are some of mine:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe), on a Friday at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (and I’ve raved before on this very blog about the wonderful stark simplicity of this sentence, but I have to throw it in again. Truly, less is more!)
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (look! She’s writing in iambic pentameters!)
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie
The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart considered that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway.

Emma by Jane Austen–a masterly portrait of a heroine cruising for a bruising, but I can’t figure out how or why!
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Finally, to clear the literary palate, the opening line of Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (an example of more being less):
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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(and a reminder, by the way that the official deadline for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is April 15, only two days away!)

You are hereby invited to share your favorites!

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16 years ago

Well, these suggestions are not especially Romance oriented, but here are four of my favorite opening lines:

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” — Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

One that will warm the cockles of every Regency reader’s heart: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

And finally, the winner for most self-referential first line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” — Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler


16 years ago

Unlurking to say that my favorite opening from a romance is the following, from Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly:

“Cambourne House, Calcutta
15 October, 1800

My dear Cousin Charles,

I disturb your peace at my father’s behest. He wishes me to investigate the progress of a lawsuit concerning the proper location of a hedgerow. Knowing and caring nothing of this hedgerow except that it languishes, properly or improperly, in Shropshire, I beg you will do me the favor of not replying to this inquiry.

Your servant,
Lt. Robert Cambourne
1 Bttn. 10th Regt.
Bengal Infantry”

Janet Mullany
16 years ago

Todd, Orwell’s 1984 opener reminds me of the opening sentence that I can’t remember but got me thinking on this topic. It’s from a book called “The Alteration” by Kinglsey Amis, which is a what if… fantasy that the Reformation never happened (actually more fun than it sounds). The first sentence of the book refers to Mozart’s second Requiem, so you immediately know something is “off.”


16 years ago

While this comment would perhaps be most appropriate on Megan’s post, I’m ashamed to admit that the only Kingsley Amis book I’ve ever read was a nonfiction book, giving a literary discussion of the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. 🙂 The book you describe sounds cool, though–I really enjoy books with alternative history. A couple of other examples are “Ada, or Ardor” by Nabokov, and the recent mysteries by Madeline Robins, set in an alternative Regency (where Queen Charlotte was Regent instead of her son). There are also a lot of examples in the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, of which “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick is one of the best.


Elena Greene
16 years ago

I haven’t been as conscious of starting lines as many authors. I think it’s because I tend to think big-picture, plot and characterization, before I think of the nuances of word and sentence construction. This is true for me as a reader and as a writer. I really would like to improve in this aspect of the craft. Thanks, Janet, and other writing buddies who are raising my awareness!

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