First Sentences – Fiction (2016)

It’s time for my annual look at the opening lines from each of the books I read the prior year. I started doing this exercise early last year for all of the books I read in 2014 and 2015. I do this for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s a nice way to be reminded of all the great books I read the prior year. But more than that, it’s a wonderful way to see how styles and techniques have changed over the years. The opening line has so many jobs to do. It must hook the reader, it must demand questions, it must showcase the writer’s voice and hint at the point-of-view. Or, as you will see, it might do none of these things.

If you missed my earlier posts in this series, here’s the gist: I take a look at the opening line from each book I read in a given year and critique it’s effectiveness as it pertains to hooking the reader’s attention and making them ask questions. A good opening line should spur the reader’s mind to curiously demand answers to the questions of who, what, why, when, where, and how. At least I think so, anyway.

Fiction

Much of 2016 was spent reading books that were either inspired by a reading group (that only reads from dead authors), reading classics I had been long-overdue in reading, or reading books that would help me better understand the genres/category in which I’m writing. And I also re-read a couple old favorites. I might cover my non-fiction books in a later post. For now, let’s talk fiction!

1) The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1990)

The alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.

This sentence, from the Prologue, makes us wonder who the alchemist is (or what one is, for those unfamiliar with the term). It’s an in-the-midst-of-it style opening that doesn’t reveal much, but gives us a cue as to the location (caravans take place in the desert). I included the second short sentence because, in stopping at the story of Narcissus, we’re given a hint as to the alchemist’s interests.

2) The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago (1986)

When Joana Carda scratched the ground with the elm branch all the dogs of Cerbere began to bark, throwing the inhabitants into panic and terror, because from time immemorial it was believed that, when these canine creatures that had always been silent started to bark, the entire universe was nearing its end.

A mouthful of a passive sentence that is a far cry from today’s tendency for shorter, more direct writing. Yet, who is not curious? The Cerbere — aka the hounds of hell — are barking and the universe is nearing its end. All from a woman scratching the ground with an elm branch? Please, do continue…

3) Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley (2006)

I’ve been told, by people more experienced at writing, that the hardest part of telling any story is the search for its beginning and its end.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Susanna Kearsley (she actually sent me this after seeing me mention our September trip to Portugal — the book is set there) and one of the things I enjoy about her books is that she often weaves the life of a writer into the story. This sentence is of Hemingway’s “one true sentence” variety and it works. The narrator is about to tell us an unbelievable story that is part family history, part international murder mystery/thriller. This sentence is from the Prologue.

4) It by Stephen King (1986)

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

A brilliant opening. For one, we’re told that the terror is going to last 28 years. We’re exposed to a narrator who may not be the most reliable (so far as I know or can tell), and we’re left wondering how a sheet of folded newspaper can initiate decades of terror. I hadn’t ever read It before and, frankly, I thought it could have been improved by being 300 pages shorter. But the opening pages hooked me big time!

5) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping.

Yes, a literary novel. How’d you guess? The first paragraph consists of three short, direct sentences about setting (and the weather, no less?!). The other two aren’t as devoid of verbs as this one is, but even combined there is little hook. The opening offers no hints to the characters, the events, or why you should care. That all changes very quickly. But here, in this opening line, we’re offered the writer’s style than anything about the story other than mood.

6) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (2003)

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.

Book five in the HP series welcomes readers back to Privet Drive, deep into the summer recess. For such a beloved series, and one that almost always begins each book in similar fashion, this is a superb opening. Privet Drive is where it all began and where we love returning to, knowing Harry is likely only a few days from returning to Hogwarts. Ah, back to school season is upon us again!

7) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.

I have never highlighted more of an opening chapter than I did in The Nightingale. The opening is exquisitely written and shows us right away that the bulk of the book will take place in the past. It will be about love, about war, and self-discovery from a life that has seen it all. This opening line doesn’t just grab our attention, but lets us know right away that we are about to spend 500 pages with an author who knows how to write a beautiful sentence.

8) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

Life is not fair. And times change. Query an agent today with that as your opening line and I doubt she’ll keep reading. The form-letter rejection slip will arrive in 6 to 8 weeks. Wait for it. There’s nothing particularly awful about that opening, but it’s all setting and no hook. Yes, it’s world-at-rest setup, but does it leave us asking any question other than, So? Not in my opinion. But it’s Hemingway, and it’s Farewell to Arms and its a classic (though not nearly as good as For Whom the Bell Tolls in my opinion. Sigh.

9) Storming: A Dieselpunk Adventure by K.M. Weiland (2015)

Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything.

What I like about this opening is that it manages to do three things subtly in very few words. 1) mentioning the biplane gives us an idea of the time period: Early 20th century. 2) specifically mentioning the model plane tells us the author did her homework and there’s going to be at least a modicum of authenticity to the book, and 3) the final words hint at a lot of unexpected action and reaction in the coming pages. It might even get frenetic. This is going to be one barn burner of a read, pardon the pun.

10) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

In addition to wondering how Jem got his arm broken or why it was important enough to mention, we’re given an idea of the locale. Jem isn’t a northern name. It’s not a California name. It’s a southern name (though the book blurb would have already told us that). We’re also informed that the narrator is going to be telling us a story from his/her youth (we don’t know it’s a girl yet), in flashback. Other than that, we don’t know much.

11) Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)

I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it.

I included the second line because the first sentence on its own does little for us. Modern writers are told to never begin with a dream. Mention of a recurring dream is okay, but the opening is not very interesting. That she expected it is at least somewhat interesting. A rather dull opening on its own.

12) The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)

The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother.

The word teacher implies a certain age. At least mid twenties (though it could be younger or much older). That she lives with her mother suggests something not quite right, so we’re interested. One of the things I like about this opening is that we are told immediately that the title character is Erika Kohut. That the author uses her full name suggests to us that she is a very formal character. It’s a nice way to show us she’s formal without telling us.

13) The Rescue by Nicholas Sparks (2000)

It would later be called one of the most violent storms in North Carolina history.

This is a nice way of beginning with the weather without literally beginning with the weather. We know we’re looking back at it by the word choice, and we also know to expect a tragedy (or near-tragedy) by the fact that Sparks mentions it was a most violent storm. Still, for the purposes of this exercise, it’s one of the weaker entries.

14) The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

Imagine that you are living your life out of order: Lunch before breakfast, marriage before your first kiss.

This is such a wonderful beginning, I feel like I don’t even need to say anything. That marriage before your first kiss line really says it all. It’s a fantastic hook that commands our full attention from the first sentence. This was a really fun book. One of my favorite reads of last year, for sure. And the movie wasn’t bad either.

15) The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (1915)

As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.

Another example of how times have changed in what is considered acceptable for an opening line. Though there is a faint suggestion of some sort of mishap or tragedy to come, beginning with a description about a single narrow street is not very engaging. The fact that she mentions arm-in-arm suggests that there’s a romance at work, or at least that we’re about to meet two characters in a relationship, but on its own this sentence does very little.

16) Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

3 May. Bistritz. – Left Munich at 8:35 p.m., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.

Dracula begins with a diary. And a rather boring one at that. This is the world-at-rest before the narrator arrives at Dracula’s Castle. It’s telling us about a journey and the mundane frustrations one has suffered (which was likely a bit more interesting in 1897). Reading it today the only questions we’re left wondering are about his final destination. Well, that, and how a German train could possibly be running late.

17) Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006)

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

This is the first line in the prologue of one of my favorite novels, a book I’ve read several times. I really like this opening, as it foreshadows a horrible event — only three people were left — and hints at the era and the type of characters we’ll meet. Using words like grease joint and fry cook are specific enough to complement the book cover/blurb (we know it’s about a circus) without bogging down in specifics.

18) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1945)

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.

This is one of my all-time favorite openings (and used to be my favorite book). I consider it right up there with the famed opening of Pride and Prejudice. I can’t think of an opening sentence that better reveals what the narrator is like than this one here. Reading this book as a high schooler, it made me want to become an author. Reading it last year, again, it made me want to ring Holden’s whiny little neck.

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