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Famous First Lines Reveal How to Start a Novel

Categories: Back to Basics, Craft & Technique, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, WD Magazine, What's New Tags: Bulwer-Lytton, First lines, Jacob M. Appel, starting a story, Zachary Petit.

On this day in 1873, writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton died. One thing he left behind: The first line from his novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night …”

The sentence went on to serve as the literary posterchild for bad story starters, and it also became the inspiration behind the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which writers compete for top honors by penning egregiously bad fake first lines. (That said, Bulwer-Lytton’s work wasn’t all bad—after all, he gave us the quote “the pen is mightier than the sword” with his play Richelieu.)

Reflecting on awful first lines (and, admittedly, drinking out of this delightful Great First Lines of Literature Mug) got me thinking about the inverse. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite openings. Share yours in the Comments below.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

A screaming comes across the sky.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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

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

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.
—Stephen King, The Gunslinger

Mother died today.
—Albert Camus, The Stranger

The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall.
—Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Club Dumas

This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
—Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
—Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

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.
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

It was love at first sight.
—Joseph Heller, Catch 22

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
—Arthur C. Clarke,  2001: A Space Odyssey

So, what goes into a great first line? We commissioned writer Jacob M. Appel to do a piece for the magazine on this very subject. Here are some tips from his article “Better Starts for Better Stories” (check out the full piece here):

 

7 WAYS TO START by Jacob M. Appel


1. A statement of eternal principle.
This technique is a staple of European classics. Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”). Of course, the story or novel you write must confirm the proposed principle. If it turned out that Mr. Darcy didn’t want to wed, or that Anna was happily married, these openings would certainly leave readers wanting. (An excellent contemporary example is from Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth: “What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. …”)

2. A statement of simple fact.
The entire weight of the narrative can sometimes be conveyed in a single statement. Think of, “I had a farm in Africa” (Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa) or, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) or, “I am an invisible man” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). No gimmicks. No fireworks. Just—as Mr. Gradgrind demands in the opening line of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times—the facts.

3. A statement of paired facts.
In many cases, two facts combined are more powerful than either one on its own. The paradigmatic example is the opening line of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” A town with two mutes is not necessarily compelling, nor are two inseparable men. But a town with two inseparable mutes? Now that locks in our interest.

4. A statement of simple fact laced with significance.
Because readers don’t read backward, it’s possible to bury a key piece of a story in an opening so that, by the time it becomes relevant, the reader has forgotten it. Agatha Christie mysteries do this often. The key to solving the crime in Murder on the Orient Express, for example, is embedded innocuously in the opening sentence. So is the key to the heroine’s psyche in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the opening of which explains, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful. …”

5. A statement to introduce voice.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated opening is not designed to convey characterization or plot, though both are present, so much as to introduce his distinctive style. Anthony Burgess opens A Clockwork Orange (“What’s it going to be then, eh?”) without any plot, characterization or setting at all—merely the ominous voice that will accompany the reader through the text. Stories that begin with a highly unusual voice often withhold other craft elements for a few sentences—a reasonable choice, as the reader may need to adjust to a new form of language before being able to absorb much in the way of content.

6. A statement to establish mood.
Contextual information not directly related to the story can often color our understanding of the coming narrative. Take Sylvia Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” While the Rosenberg execution has nothing to do with the content of the narrative, it sets an ominous tone for what follows.

7. A statement that serves as a frame.
Sometimes, the best way to begin a story is to announce that you’re about to tell a story. English storytellers have been doing this since at least the first recorded use of the phrase “Once upon a time” in the 14th century. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn starts off this way, as does J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. After all, a brilliant opening can be as straightforward as: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler …” (which really does start exactly that way).

 

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17 Responses to Famous First Lines Reveal How to Start a Novel

  1. mbarthelmes says:

    “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.”

  2. Karu says:

    “My mother had me sort the eyes.”

    Elizabeth Graver’s “The Body Shop”

  3. Ian B. McLean says:

    “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling

    and

    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” –Hitch

  4. Falconrei_7 says:

    “These are the things I know are true:”
    from The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan.

  5. Falconrei_7 says:

    “These are the things I know are true:” from The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan.

  6. kkertelartistry says:

    I think you might have misattributed that first quote. The opening line of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude goes something like, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Buendia remembered that distant afternoon when his grandfather took him to discover ice.”

    I believe the quote you listed first is from H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu.

  7. vrundell says:

    Mine? Hands down: “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

  8. Montalembert says:

    He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
    Raphael Sabatini, “Scaramouche”

  9. DRoberts says:

    Here’s three that caught my attention and made me want to read more.

    I was arrested at Eno’s diner. — Lee Child, “Killing Floor” (His debut novel)

    This is where he would die. — Taylor Stevens, “The Informationist” (Her debut novel.)

    He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town. –Les Edgerton, “The Bad Part of Town” (Short Story)

  10. Labuschagne says:

    If there ever was a device or tool that exposed raw human nature without fail, it was politics.

  11. CiaraRyan says:

    My favorite opening line is, “The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything into perspective.” from Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson. I love how well it sets up the tone of the story, but this chapter was just a dream, so I suppose this isn’t the best example of how to begin a novel.

  12. Judith says:

    My favorite first line of, probably, my favorite author Thomas Wolfe, “A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”

  13. jules says:

    It was the best of times. It was the worst of times, Charles Dickens. It’s how I feel every time I start writing.

    Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again, by Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca) This comes to mind every time I want to escape.

  14. Judith says:

    Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, “A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”

  15. Jasperak says:

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
    -H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

  16. Ray Vignovich says:

    The opening line of 100 Years of Solitude is “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…”

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