Dazzle and dead bodies:What goes into a great opening?

I am about to give you the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.
It comes from the King of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” But it is one of my favorite writing mantras. And I really believe that within the quote’s Zen simplicity are three huge lessons about how to write a good book:
  1. Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
  2.  Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense. 
  3. Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.  

But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
It’s pretty subjective, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Click here to go to our archives and read Elaine Viet’s take on it. We writers all have our favorite opening lines, which all seem to circle back to “Call me Ishmael.” (Click here to read famous authors talking about their favorite opening lines.)
I especially like Stephen King’s favorite: 
“This is what happened.”
It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s out of print novel, Shoot. King likes it because, “It is as flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
King says he struggles with all his opening lines, sometimes for years. I guess that should make us mere mortals feel better as we stare at that blank screen and sweat blood trying to get the right mix of words to snag the reader’s attention. Back to Stephen King:

“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”

King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:

“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”

As King himself says, it’s pretty workmanlike, neither grand nor elegant. But look what it does: It immediately sets the reader in time and place and creates a bridge between the past book and the new one. I think this is a great lesson for all us writers — you don’t always need dazzling wordplay or a dead body in your opening. Sometimes you just need a solidly build doorway the reader can step through.
I mean, don’t you get a little tired sometimes reading the tortured openings some writers give us? Crime novelists might be the worst offenders because we are led to believe that we have to shock and awe in the opening graph or the story is DOA. As a reader, I hunger for books lately that open in a lower gear. As a writer, I am trying hard to follow the lead of King (and the King of Hearts) and just begin at the beginning.
I am not happy with the opening chapter of my WIP. I think I am trying too hard. So recently, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out few of my favorite books to see how others handled things. Here are four opening lines that I found:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Who’s there?” 
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” 

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The four books? Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Hamlet by Shakespeare; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  
Great openings, all for different reasons. White gives us suspense worthy of Dean Kootz in a children’s book! Shakespeare gives us foreboding and the existential call to self identify. Eugenides sums up his gender theme but makes us wonder: Haven’t we all been born twice? And Plath leads us right to her heroine’s “electric nerves” and lost soul.
Can I offer one last favorite of mine? It’s on almost everyone’s list of great openings but so what?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
But I love the next few lines even more:
“My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Yes, it is about Humbert’s obsession with his nymphet . But it is also about Nabokov’s obsession with words. Lo. Lee. Ta…a narcotic chant and a prose poem. I’ll never forget the first moment I read that paragraph. I was sixteen, standing in the public library during a sweltering Detroit summer. I’m sure I didn’t really understand the story. What I understood was the magic of those words. True confessions: A couple years ago, I actually tried to riff on Nabokov’s Lo-Lee-Ta in a mystery I was writing. The character was describing Florida (Flor-ee-dah!) and well…you can imagine how bad it was. Thank God my editor told me to rewrite it.
Okay, one last Nabokov sample and then I’ll shut up. It is the SECOND paragraph in Lolita:

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” 

The first paragraph of Lolita made me want to be a writer. That second paragraph, when I read it today, makes me want to be a better writer. 
We’re back. I can’t resist this coda. Because as I was getting ready to hit the button to post this, I found out that the 2013 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. This contest, begun in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, honors opening sentences in novels. It is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830, wrote these now famous lines:

“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.” 

Yes, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recognizes the worst possible opening lines for novels in all genres. (Here’s the link if you want to read them all, God help you.). For all us crime dogs out there, I’ll give you the winner in crime fiction:

“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”

Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:

“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.” 

And here is this year’s grand prize winner:

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

I think I actually saw that last one on Amazon the other day. If you hurry, you can get it for 99 cents.

38 thoughts on “Dazzle and dead bodies:What goes into a great opening?

  1. The key to a great opening is to plant an unsettling question that the reader feels compelled by curiosity to see answered. Often a bullets-flying opening leaves me cold because the author fails to plant that all-important question. “Will the protagonist survive the danger?” isn’t enough, because at that early point I really don’t care enough about whether he or she does. I can close the book and never give it a second thought. But if the bullet-dodging protagonist seems far more worried about dropping the box he’s carrying than getting shot, or the pursuers are his suburban neighbors, then my curiosity is engaged.

    • Exactlym Paul. You can create dry-mouth suspense without overt action or violence in an opening chapter. In fact, as you say, an overly charged opening can sometimes be offputting!

  2. Fun post with great advice, Kris. I love first lines and enjoy collecting them. I took a turn at this topic with a Kill Zone post back in 2010. Here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/oay89xk. And here are a couple of my favorite first lines from that post.

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

    Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

    It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

    Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

  3. By far King’s most evocative first line is:

    The man in black fled into the desert and the gunslinger followed him.

    One of my hobby projects is a manuscript that I call the worst novel ever written. I dabble at it occasionally when I have a word clog in my head. It is a noir potboiler called “Death Road” that I pride myself on being awful. Instead of the rule “Final Draft = First Draft- 10%” every time I open it, I add 10%.

    The first line is something like “The Chicago sky was the dull colorless leaden gray of an abandoned barn bleached of all its life by the pitiless sun.”

    And I love love love Bulwer-Lyton contests (hint TKZ hint). I’m off to read these masterpieces. The crime winner is actually quite clever, very Mickey Spillane. A few years ago a friend of mine won “vile puns” with a tale of vehicular vandalism that ended, “. . . alas, in truth it was Splenda in the gas.”


    • Speaking of starts, Terri, I see Janet ‘The Shark’ said your contest entry was a great start to a high wire thriller (or something like that) and your writing was stunning. Now that’s a compliment from a tough agent. Congrats!

    • Amanda, thanks for the kind words. The Shark’s contests are the best. I treasure my win there as much as any other award I have ever won. The premise of that flasher came from one of my trunkers. I may revisit it with different characters at some point.

      And there is no phrase too purple to be excluded from “Death Road.”


  4. A great post to start my morning. Love all the opening lines presented… the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    The first sentence of my current novel appeared in my head, I wrote it down, and the rest of the novel followed from it. I’ve done tons of revisions, but that first sentence stands, unedited. Is it the perfect opening for the book, or am I just superstitiously attached to it because it was the launch of the whole idea?(To quote Mr. King, “Kill your darlings.”)


    • Leslie, I am with Stephen King in that I SWEAT the opening graph to death. If I can’t nail it I often get paralyzed and can’t move on in the story. Not a good way to work, as my sister keeps reminding me. But if, like you, you hit that great opening note…well, it’s wonderful.

    • Kris –
      Excuse the familiarity but addressing a pseudonym feels strange.
      Very interesting post as usual. I’ve followed TKZ a long time and I feel your contributions are outstanding.

  5. Judging from the examples, I’d say the one thing really great opening lines have in common is they have nothing in common. It’s not a formula, it’s lightning in a bottle. There’s as much luck as craft involved, which brings us to Jefferson’s maxim about luck and hard work.

    • Good way to put it John. And we should remember that some really great books didn’t have “great” opening lines. It was the sum total that made it great.

  6. PJ–Absolutely wonderful post, full of great first lines. My personal favorite comes from TKZ’s own James Scott Bell’s novel, Try Darkness: “The nun hit me in the mouth and said, ‘Get out of my house.'”

  7. It was here at TKZ, Joe’s above mentioned post from 2010 I believe, that I first started really paying attention to that whole grab’em with the first line concept. My 2nd novel was just about to come out and after reading his post and a few other related articles I rewrote the first sentence from a weather description to “The knife was razor-sharp.” Seemed to work better that way, at least according to Amazon’s sales reports. 😉

    Speaking of first lines, a few weeks back on one of Joe H’s posts I commented about my wife’s ancient genealogy books and a couple folks asked me write a post about it. Well, with the help of a linguist to get more details out of the text I did just that, and boy what a treasure chest of history its turning out to be. Once you’ve read and commented here at TKZ I’d love to have you stop by and visit basilsands.blogspot.com and read/comment on this amazing history find.

    First line of a 700 year old book?

    “The True and Faithful Account of the Family of General Ma”

    • The General Ma line works for me, Basil! I would read on. I, too, have been known to rely on weather openings. Sometimes they work but usually they just sort of hang there.

  8. All of my favorite first lines tend to be short. This is the best one I’ve ever read:
    All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

  9. I love the opening of Jazz, by Toni Morrison, for its bluesy suggestive desperation:

    “Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.”

    • Good example, Marbles. Morrison’s books are full of memorable lines. Like the opening from “Paradise”:

      “They shoot the white girl first.”

      Also, in “Beloved” there is the heartwrenching description “Disremembered and unaccounted for.” Dis-remembered…great.

      Here is another good opening from the book I am reading now, John D. MacDonald’s “Darker Than Amber”:

      “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

  10. Thanks for the thought provoking article. I loved reading down all those great lines. I didn’t know that Snoopy’s line actually came from a published novel!
    My favorite, far too long to quote, has to be the 60 word opening from Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which begins, “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year…”

  11. There was a hilarious “Two and a Half Men” episode where Alan kept starting his story anew. It reminded me of how much time I spend on beginnings. Titles, beginnings, climaxes, and denouements are places where all writers must spend time that’s proportionally longer for the words contained therein than for all the words in the rest of the novel (phew…that was a tough sentence). Unfortunately, what hooks one person in a title or opening might not hook another…it’s very subjective. I’ve read all your ideas. They all sound good but the proof is in the pudding (pardon the cliche, but I like pudding).
    The most famous opening is probably “Call me Ishmael.” But Melville goes on to write a manual on whale hunting and rendering a whale into blubber. I’m not a PETA member, but I’m just not interested.

    • But Steve, you just never know when you may need that skill. I mean, one day you find yourself after the apacolypse, stranded on a desert island with a beautiful lady. The continuance of the species depends on getting her mate. You go to woo her with a lamp-lit feast of coconut and monkey brain pudding with a nice mango chutney and whamo! out of lamp oil…she points to the canoe and says “Fix It!”

      …whatcha gonna do then?

      And along comes Richard the 6th…Moby’s great great great great great grand whale…problem solved and the world continues at peace.

  12. I don’t know that beginning at the beginning is always the best choice. Some of my favorite mysteries begin at the end. Props for quoting ‘Alice.’

    • Kelly,
      I understand your point. The “trick” is figuring out where the true beginning of your story is. And yes, sometime the end IS the beginning.

  13. I am so with you about growing weary of overheated openings. Anyone who reads a fair amount will immediately know s/he’s being played with, by a writer who is like someone too obviously working the room in an effort to network. It’s bogus, the opposite of a page-turner–that is, a book-closer. More importantly, it signals–at least to me–that the writer is a novice.

  14. We do agonize so much on that first line, but for good cause. It sets the tone and expectations of the reader for all that is to come. And as you say in point one, it is so important to pick the right spot for the opening, and to jettison unecessary throat clearing. I think throat clearing (and over-explanation and, God forbid, flashbacks) is the reason why people put down some books before the end of Chapter One.

  15. Late to the party, but I do like Lolita’s first line. It seems Lana Del Rey loves it to, since she borrowed the line and wrote an entire song inspired by Lolita.

  16. Love the “Lolita” line!

    One of my favorite first lines is from Richard Stark’s “Firebreak”: When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

  17. I just knocked off the first three pages of my WIP to begin the book with the murder. It’s hard to believe I didn’t see this move before, but sometimes you need to gain distance on your work first.

  18. BTW, I don’t remember if there was a King of Hearts (I’m talking the original, not Disney), but I think it was the Queen who said to begin at the beginning. Of course, it doesn’t matter, except for me the beginning is the title. I agonize over that just as much as the other things I mentioned.
    And, Basil, if I’m on a desert island with a beautiful woman, I probably should just wake up!

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