A writer needs to get the attention of his/her readers as soon as possible — to make them want to read further, to make them not put the book back onto the bookshop shelf in favour of another book. There are many ways to do this and it can take anywhere from a single word to an entire chapter. But what I want to write about today is that all-important first sentence.
A book’s first sentence can be long or short, descriptive or elusive, intriguing or demanding, full of purple prose or stated matter-of-factly — but its purpose is to begin the story and hook the reader. Some writers do this better than others.
Today, I simply want to share with you some of my favourite opening sentences — some with comments, other without. These are not necessarily my favourite books, these are just sentences that I found had grabbed my attention and made me remember them. I am presenting them in splendid isolation from the remainder of the text to which they belong. Have a read and see if you can guess from which books I have extracted them — I’ve listed the books at the end of the post.
1. I’m going to start with my all-time favourite — a truly memorable and intriguing sentence that sets up reader expectations. It’s a very recognisable sentence and also a rather long one — far longer than is fashionable to write in this day and age.
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
2. Another absolute classic:
“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
3. A little gruesome, but memorable.
“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”
4. “I heard a story once about a little kid who came home from school and found his mother dead on the kitchen floor.”
5. “I keep thinking that I have a tunnel in my chest.”
6. What I love about this sentence is the way ‘dæmon’ is written with such everyday matter-of-factsness.
“Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
7. “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.”
8. “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”
9. Okay, okay — this is one sentence plus one extra word. But that one extra word makes all the difference.
“It wasn’t even five o’clock and Milo had already murdered Mrs Appleby. Twice.”
10. “Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead.”
11. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
12. “All children, except one, grow up.”
13. “Later, while I was facing the Potter Moth, or fleeing for my life from the First Ones, or helping man a cannon aboard Jack Havock’s brig Sophronia, I would often think back to the way my life used to be, and to that last afternoon at Larklight, before all our misfortunes began.”
14. “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”
15. “Something eerie came over European civilization in the early twentieth century and led to a madness which was called ‘the Great War’.”
So there you have it — some of my favourite opening sentences. They probably say more about me than the books they come from. There are probably other ones out there that I may like better… but either I haven’t read them yet, or I read them so long ago that I can’t remember them, or I was simply unable to get my hands onto a copy of the relevant book to check the quote.
But what about all you people out there in the blogosphere? What are your favs? Leave and comment and share an opening sentence.
And tune in next time for some random quotes.
Catch ya later, George
PS. Here are the books:
1. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, 1898.
2. Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984.
3. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown, 2000.
4. The Inner Circle, Gary Crew, 1986.
5. After the First Death, Robert Cormier, 1979.
6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, 1995.
7. Glory Road, Robert Heinlein, 1963.
8. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, 2000.
9. The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler, Paul Collins, 2009.
10. Blaze of Glory, Michael Pryor, 2006.
11. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dauglas Adams, 1979.
12. Peter Pan, JM Barrie, 1911.
13. Larklight, Philip Reeve, 2006.
14. Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terrance Dicks, 1977.
15. The First A.I.F.: A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, LL Robson, 1970.