02 April 2015

More Beginnings

By Brian Thornton

(For my first post in this two-part series about the importance of giving your story a great beginning, please click here.)

Last time out I talked about the importance of a good opening for your novel. In the comments section folks quoted some great openers (Eve Fisher's quote of the opening line from Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice comes to mind. Thanks Eve!)

In the interest of fostering further conversation, I've included a few of my own favorite novel openers, from across a broad spectrum of literature. If you find the opener intriguing, I can guarantee there is a strong payoff for your investment!

More on this in two weeks.

Read on:

"Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emmanuel Lasker."

                                                                             – The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

"I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion ... no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials ... no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes-no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither has), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please-"
                                                                                 – Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein

"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name.Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for the dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."

                                                                                  – Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously."

                                                                                 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

"I want the legs.'
   "That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year0old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no comparison."

                                                                                  – Queenpin by Megan Abbott

"The trouble didn't seem to start so much as it simply landed, like a hunk of blazing debris."

                                                                                  – Dirt by Sean Doolittle

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

                                                                                    – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

"At its northernmost limit, the California coastline suffered a winter of brutal winds pitched against iron-clad fog, and roiling seas whose whiplash could scar a man's cheek as quickly as a cat–o'–nine tails. Since the Gold Rush, mariners had run aground, and those who survived the splintering impact were often pulped when the tides tore them across the terrible strata of the volcanic landscape. For protection, the State had erected a score of lighthouses staffed with teams of three or four families who rotated duties that lasted into the day and into the night. The changing of the guard, as it were, was especially treacherous in some locations, such as Crescent City, accessible only by a tombolo that was flooded in high tide, or Point Bonita, whose wooden walkway, even after the mildest storm, tended to faint dead away from the loose soil of its mountaintop and tumble into the sea."

                                                                                        – Sunnyside by Glen David Gold

"In the shadows of the John F. Kennedy Expressway, surrounded by the warehouses, factories and auto-body shops, stands Villa d'Este, a family-run restaurant that serves generous portions of decidedly untrendy Italian-American food at reasonable prices. The restaurant was there more than thirty years before the expressway slashed the neighborhood in two and I imagine into me there long after the Kennedy collapses under the weight of bureaucratic neglect and political corruption. In Chicago, some things never go out of style."

                                                                                          – Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover

"The heavy red-figured drapes over the courtroom windows were incompletely closed against the sun. Yellow daylight leaked in and dimmed the electric bulbs in the high ceiling. It picked out random details in the room: the glass water cooler standing against the paneled wall opposite the jury box, the court reporter's carmine-tipped fingers playing over her stenotype machine, Mrs. Perrine's experienced eyes watching me across the defense table."

                                                                                            – The Chill by Ross MacDonald

And that's it for this week. Make sure to tune in two weeks from now when I add a few more of examples and talk about what they do right to hook the reader. In the meantime feel free to weight in over in the comment section with examples of favorite opening lines and why they work for you!

See you in two weeks!



  1. I didn't guess any of them, Brian, and others I didn't know at all.

  2. I often thought Kemelman's title Friday The Rabbi Slept Late would have made a better opening sentence than what he actually used, something about the congregation. The title portends and you know something bad is going to happen.


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