Much has been written about how to do an opening scene in a novel. Just Google the phrase — “opening scene” novel — and you’ll see about a half-million hits on the subject (some more relevant than others, of course). Many of them will give you some helpful, already well-known suggestions, things like: Hook us from the very beginning, begin your scene with a likable hero, have the bad guy make an appearance with a bang, use immediate action, infuse your tension with humor (and thousands of other suggestions). Not every suggestion will work for every novel, and sometimes too much is too much.
Les Edgerton, in his writing book, Hooked, outlines ten different elements that can make up an opening scene (an inciting incident, a story-worthy problem, an initial surface problem, a setup, backstory, a stellar opening sentence, language, character, setting, and foreshadowing). He gives an explanation of each of these in this article, Opening Scenes: An Overview, at writersdigest.com. These are all possible components of any opening scene, and all very valid. I would like to focus on just one for now: the opening line.
Some great opening lines:
- A screaming comes across the sky. — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
- It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. — Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
- It was the day my grandmother exploded. — Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
- I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. — Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
- Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. — Albert Camus, The Stranger (1946)
- When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first. — Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark), Backflash (1997)
- It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — Ernest Hemingway, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1936)
- The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming. — Elmore Leonard, Glitz (1985)
The best thing about most of them is that they manage to pack so much information into such a small space. They all convey a sense of the kind of novel you’re going to be reading, and they tell just enough to make you curious. Some of the lines use action to grab us, some use a twist on what we might consider normal, and some evoke a mood, but they’re all designed to make us want to keep reading.
In my case, I rarely know what the first scene of any of my novels is going to be until I’m partway through writing the first draft, so I never agonize over getting the first line right when I begin a new novel. There’s plenty of time for that once I know where the story is going to start. Then, yes, it takes many, many rewrites to get the opening the way I want it.
What are some of your favorite first lines? How do you approach writing the first line in your books?