Once upon a time…looking at the opening lines of books.

Once upon a time…looking at the opening lines of books.

Trinity College Library, Dublin with Holly in her Santa hat. Photo: Lisa Fleetwood December 2013.
Trinity College Library, Dublin with Holly in her Santa hat. Photo: Lisa Fleetwood December 2013.

I love a good opening line, it can be intriguing, beautifully written, scary or thought provoking. Or boring!

Thanks to my friend and writer Maureen Flynn for this idea. She posted on Facebook asking a few writer friends to put up the first line of the first three chapters of their WIP or ‘work in progress’. It really made me think about the first line of my novel, so I decided to do some research and look back through some of the books I’ve read this year and re-read some of their opening lines.

The first line in my list below is by acclaimed Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. His book The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a hard read (for me) but beautifully written – as you can see by his opening line. He has just been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, one of the worlds most important literary awards.

♦Scroll down below for a collection of hints I’ve found to help me create a great first line♦


Please let me know your favourite from this list, or the favourite first line from a book you have read this year.

Richard FlanaganThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: ‘Why at the beginning of things is there always light?’ 

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: ‘I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel comfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.’

The Night GuestThe Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane: ‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger.’ 

My hearts choirMy Hearts Choir Sings by Maureen Flynn (Verse Novella): ‘The open, sterilised jaws of / your flat beckoned, quiet / Like the yellowed pages of books / That were your long time companions.’ 

just_a_girljust_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth: ‘The guy formerly known as youami33 told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt.’

Ink Black MagicInk Black Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts: ‘The dream was about heroes – impossible heroes with rippling muscles, ink-black eyes and amazing powers.’

Kirsty MurrayThe Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray: ‘For the first time in her life, Lucy dreaded Christmas.’

The Crane WifeThe Crane Wife by Patrick Ness: ‘What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.’

wildegirlsFairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near: ‘Once upon a time, Isola Wilde was watching late night television with her eldest brother, Alejandro, when Channel 12 broadcast a live suicide.’

Cloud roadThe Cloud Road by Isobelle Carmody: ‘Frozen ripples and waves of sand stretched to the horizon in all directions, separated by misshapen pools of violet shadow.’

The CookThe Cook by Wayne Macauley: So here I am and no going back.’

Very-Unusual-PursuitA Very Unusual Pursuit by Catherine Jinks: ‘The front door was painted black, with a shiny brass knocker that made a satisfying noise when Alfred used it.’ 

Six Impossible thingsSix Impossible Things by Fiona Wood: ‘If you can’t forget that it means someone just died, inheriting something is a good thing, isn’t it?’

Wildlife FiWildlife by Fiona Wood: ‘In the holidays before the dreaded term at my school’s outdoor education campus two things out of the ordinary happened.’ 

These Broken StarsThese Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: ‘Nothing about this room is real.’

Felicity CastagnaThe Incredible Here and Now by Felicity Castagna: ‘Some people say ‘West’ like its something wrong, like ice-cream that fell into the gutter.’

Life in Outer SpaceLife in Outer Space by Melissa Keil: ‘I start Monday by falling flat on my arse.’

Jamie ReignJamie Reign: The Last Spirit Warrior by PJ Tierney‘On a cloud-topped mountain, on a island far from the mainland, a man stands alone on a precipice.’

John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green: ‘Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.’

MyLifeAsAnAlphabetMy Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg: ‘A is for assignment.’

Claire ZornThe Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn: ‘There are two things I know right now: one is that a guy is holding a gun to my head, the other is that I don’t want to die.’

High SobrietyHigh Sobriety by Jill Stark: ‘The roar in my skull sounds like waves battering a shore.’


Flower

Here are some tips I’ve found on creating a great first line – there are many more tips out there – but I found this information useful so I thought I would share! The examples I have used below are from the books above. 

A powerful and interesting line can immediately lure a reader and hint at the heart of the novel. It can:

  • Establish tone
  • Hint at conflict or theme
  • Lure with the promise of some reward
  • Cause an instant emotional reaction, connection to character, and/or fascination with scene
  • Hook the reader

Do you, as a writer want to:

  • Enchant the reader with beautiful poetic prose? Example: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • Grasp the readers attention with dialogue – a statement or truth from the point of view of the protagonist. You can immediately reveal the voice of your main character and allow the reader to connect with them. Example: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
  • Start in the action – begin with a tense situation. Example: The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn
  • Surprise the reader – give them something they weren’t expecting. A beautiful poignant first line in a horror book, or as in The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, who does several things wonderfully well in his opening line. It was both poetic and a surprise and it showed a little about his slightly odd protagonist. It also alluded to something perhaps magical and life changing about to happen – All in one sentence! Wow!
  • Do you want hook the reader with something mysterious? Example: Jamie Reign: The Last Spirit Warrior by PJ Tierney.
  • Or intriguing? Example: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane or Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near.
  • Or elude to characters wound, their darkest weakness that drives them to do the things they do, or their inner demons – as in My Heart’s Choir Sings by Maureen Flynn

My first line: I had a think about my first line – I’m trying not to over think it considering whatever I think sounds fantastic today might not sound so great next week, or next month, and I will change it as have done about 100 times already but – I found my great opening line sitting right there on page 1, about 4 paragraphs down. What was it doing therethis wonderful sentence?

It just got promoted.


What is your favourite opening line?

Thanks to good old Google for some of this information specifically this article in the Huffington Post

12 thoughts on “Once upon a time…looking at the opening lines of books.

  1. Some great tips about first lines. And they are really important which puts a lot of pressure on them. One of my favourite opening lines – though it is kind of more like an opening statement before the book begins – is from Daughter Of Smoke And Bone: ‘Once Upon A Time, An Angel And A Devil Fell In Love. It Did Not End Well.’
    I knew I would love the story after reading that.

    1. Oh, I loved that beginning too! I should have put that in the post – might have to add it in! I wrote the post before I’d read Daughter of Smoke and Bone and didn’t think to update it! Now I want it in there! I am a little confused with my books first line – it has a prologue which is about my protagonists ancestor, and not the protagonist – so when I look at it as an introduction to my book I’m not sure about it now! It still needs more work!

      1. Prologues are tricky, and I heard a lot of agents don’t like them. Saying that, though, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a prologue. Some agents don’t mind them, especially in fantasy, as long as they are short and add to the story. I even heard some suggest you don’t include your prologue in your submission and tell them afterwards and they will decide whether to include it or not.

    1. First lines are stressful! I wish a editing fairy would just spiral down to my writing desk and shine a light on the best first line in my book as now I’m not so sure about my first line! It doesn’t take long to start doubting something which seemed perfect the day before.

        1. You are so right. My problem is that its at about the 4th full draft and I keep picking things apart and the beginning 10000 words has been rewritten a dozen times. I’m cutting myself off from this manuscript in about 6 weeks! Its time to go in the drawer! 🙂

  2. Some great opening lines! I particularly like that ‘Fairytales for Wilde Girls’ one… something about the seemingly innocuous “once upon a time” being followed by “broadcast a live suicide” is just instantly intriguing. Can’t say any of my own opening lines are as compelling… though I’ve read some great books with mediocre openings, so there is hope yet for those of us with less-than-perfect first sentences 🙂

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