It Had to Be You, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips: “Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral.” Why’s it good? It shows that the main character is audacious, and it's funny, but it also hints at something more complicated. Who doesn’t take her father’s funeral seriously? I immediately want to know more.
Legend, by Marie Lu: “My mother thinks I’m dead.” Why’s it good? Striking in its simplicity, this idea is fascinating—not only that the mother doesn’t know the truth of things, but that the main character has reason to hide from her. I definitely want to read on.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.” Why’s it good? The writing is lushly beautiful at the same times that it's dark and scary. What is this “it” that lives on screams and comes from nightmares? How could anyone not read on to find out?
Whether browsing at a store or surfing a website, my book-selection process is always the same—and I bet it’s similar to yours. First, seeing which cover design and title catch my eye. Second, judging whether the “back cover” description sounds interesting. And finally, if the book passes those two tests, opening to the first page to check out the writing style. The author doesn’t have long to snag my attention before I move on to the next cool cover. But I have read books where the first sentences definitely did not do much to draw me in. That was because I knew the story had something interesting, or for some other special reason. Some that didn't immediately grab me:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker: “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.” In hindsight, I can see the humor: Poor Mr. Harker. If arriving one hour late from a 220-mile trip makes him grit his teeth, he’s going to have problems dealing with the rest of this book. But for people approaching the story fresh, I don’t see how it could be that appealing.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” Taken out of context—as in no front cover and no back-cover description—I have a hard time getting into first sentences like this. The weather description isn’t as spell-binding as the rest of the novel is, and that takes away from the significance of the character's transformation, in my opinion. Many readers will like it, though, and come away wondering what he became that gray day. This shows how widely judgment can vary and how you can never please every reader with one sentence. So please yourself first.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera: “The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!” Umm, yeah. That's kind of heavy, and if I was looking for an entertaining read, I might pass depending on my mood (and how much sleep I’d had). It seems to be written for philosophers more than your average reader, but it does have an interesting theory when you start thinking about it. I go back and forth—good, bad, interesting, too heavy. Luckily, that sentence was not my deciding factor in whether to read Unbrearable Lightness. My friend recommended it, and the cool title did help draw me in. And the book was fascinating, if somewhat depressing—a read that leaves you questioning what life means, and so an appropriate first line. But it does bring up some advice: Consider who your audience will be.
There’s lots of advice experts give on how to start your story, but pretty much like all other writing “rules,” if you write well you can do whatever you want. (If there’s a theme to this post, it’s that.) For example, I’d say a really good first line will show readers what kind of story to expect—except when it doesn’t. Many of my favorite stories have started on an understated note that's quieter than the rest. For example:
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding: The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth: There is one mirror in my house.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
Writers commonly employ these quieter starts on high-octane stories, especially dystopians, to give readers a chance to get to know the character before the madness begins, or before the inciting event. A couple of these examples also disprove another commonly tossed-out “rule”—that starts where characters are waking up are overdone and best avoided. (Some say that about starting on the first day of school, too.) But I would argue that anything done well is worth doing. In other words, can you make it special? Be honest with yourself. If your answer is “No, not special enough,” try something else.
It emphasizes what’s most important—and this is a rule that can’t be ignored. Start strong, but make every line better than the previous. That means your story has to get more interesting, more spell-binding and better written on every page. That’s how to draw in readers, and keep them coming back for your work.
I think the most delicious openings have a twist that shows you the story will be something special. This style is one of my favorites—that kind of sentence where you can’t not read on...
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer: I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
World After, by Susan Ee: Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black: Tana woke lying in a bathtub.
This is probably the most famous opening of all time:
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
And that’s interesting because it’s such an incredibly long sentence. I suspect it would get chopped up if it were coming through the publishing pipeline for today’s readers. And yet, it’s so famous and the book has been so ridiculously successful regardless of what kind of story was popular with readers of the day.
To read more on this topic, check out writer Amy Trueblood’s blog Chasing the Crazies. She regularly interviews literary agents about what’s important to them in the first five pages of any manuscript.
Her blog is an excellent tool to check when you’re considering which agents to query. I prefer agents who recognize that anything can be done well—those who don’t rule out working with, say, “waking up” openings (hello, The Hunger Games) or vampire stories (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown), even if my manuscript doesn’t deal with such elements. That’s because an agent signs you for your whole career, and who knows what you'll get interested in next.