I’m working on ideas for a new book and inevitably being only at the planning stage I am chewing over the opening scene and specifically how the opening line might pan out. I’m not going to put anything down here as I am just at the ideas stage, the book’s current state consists of a pile of A4 notes, some loose story outlines and character sketches in Scrivener.
I was thinking about how the opening scene could capture the mood, setting and style of any book, drop the reader into the action (for the YA fiction I write) and hopefully compels them to carry on reading. It’s the compelling that is the hard part though. By the time I finished my last manuscript I had written at least four separate opening chapters and several more versions of the same before arriving where I ended up, if that makes sense.
But once I had that opening scene encapsulated there was still the opening line to craft. That ‘killer’ opening line, the ‘once upon a time’ before the journey begins. I’m not sure I got it right, that’s for others to decide, but what I did do for some research was to scour some of my favourite books for the opening lines that hooked and in turn encouraged and inspired me. I thought I would share some of them with you.
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.
‘Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.’ Empire of the sun, JG Ballard.
‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’ Northern Lights, Philip Pullman.
‘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.’ The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
‘Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.’ A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini.
I like these openings as they range from six words to a full paragraph in length, but what they all have in common for me is that they encapsulate each book in a sentence. Each example has captured the style and leitmotif of each novel so exactly and completely and yet looks so simple and well crafted, each one a concise masterwork. So, where has your opening line inspiration come from?
(For more reading here is a link to a recent article in the UK Guardian books section with more famous opening sentences in genre fiction).