I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels. They’re what pull you in to the story. They set the tone for the entire book. They’re like the entryway of a house. They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.
While the logical thing would be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things. While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel. Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.
Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.” The reader’s immediate response is to read on. Who is Giovanni? Is he going to kiss her? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order. Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement. It’s brilliant. Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.
Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.” Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies? If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery. This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.
Here are some other great openings. Hopefully some of them will inspire you.
The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov
They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.
The Blue Men by Joyce Williams
Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.
Gesturing by John Updike
She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.
Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo
Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.
Exchange Value by Charles Johnson
Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.
Judgment by Kate Wheeler
When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.
The Remission by Mavis Gallant
When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.
Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller
Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.
The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt
The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.
Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell
These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.
Medley by Toni Cade Bambara
I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.
The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.
The Winter Father by Andre Dubus
The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.
Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark
My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.
A School Story by William Trevor
Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.
Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro
I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.
Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.