In the beginning . . .

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

I tell my journalism students that all good writing begins the same way.

Three cups of strong coffee, sometimes four.

The next step is writing a strong opening line, a gripping, tension-building sentence that compels the reader to keep reading. Journalists refer to the first sentence of a story as the “lede.” Publishers use the more technical term, “first sentence.” Still others prefer, “The sentence you write after four cups of coffee.”

No matter what it’s called, a great opening line is critical. It guarantees the reader will move on to Sentence #2, which then will compel the reading of Sentence #3, and then Sentence #4, and so on. The exception to this rule are readers who prefer to skip Sentence #1 and wait for the movie version. Such people suffer attention deficit disorder caused by excessive consumption of coffee.

A book need not be interesting or even readable in order to be considered a classic or important work of literature. Sometimes the author need only a catchy first word. This worked for James Joyce, whose opening line in “Ulysses” starts with the word “Stately.” The fact that everything after “stately” appears to be gibberish is beside the point. I remind my students that it took Joyce four years to write “Ulysses” and it takes most readers five years to reach Sentence #17.

Nearly 200 million books have been published in the past 100 years. To create my personal list of favorite opening lines I first eliminated prolific novelist James Patterson, thereby reducing my search to roughly 250 titles. I then eliminated any book that began with the word “Stately.” Lastly, I excluded The Magna Magna Carta (1215) because its author had a name longer than the first chapter of Ulysses (John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou.) And I omitted The Bible because I thought it pretentious for any author to use a beginning sentence that begins with, “In the beginning …” Strong writing must also be subtle.

Opening lines that compelled me to keep reading at least 45 minutes before taking a coffee break

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”

—    John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. “

—Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

Opening lines that struck me as very funny

“The moment one learns English, complications set in.”

Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

—Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

—Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

“Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

— William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

Opening lines that I assumed were profound because I didn’t understand them.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

“Call me Ishmael.”

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

—Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

First sentences that involved intriguing word choice and clever punctuation

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

— Dickens, Christmas Carol

All this happened, more or less.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

—Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

Openers that creeped me out so badly I could not keep continue reading without turning on the room lights

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

— Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth

“They shoot the white girl first.”

—Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

—Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”

—Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

—Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

Opening lines I wish I’d written

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

—Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

—William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

—L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

Opening lines badly in need of rewrite but rescued by a good story line

“Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.”

—Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

—James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

Opening lines in which the author exhausted the then-available worldwide supply of commas due to the fact that the periods (.) had not yet been invented.

See: Ulysses, Magna Carta, The Bible






© 2014, David Chartrand

David Chartrand writes humor and commentary from his home in Olathe. • •


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