by Tracy Kiely
When I started writing my first mystery, I keep reading how important the first line of the book was. As in, “Get this one thing wrong and you’ll never get published.”
Gotta love those helpful, no-pressure publishing tips. I think it took me a year to come up with a sentence in which I had the smallest bit of confidence.
According to the powers that be, this all-important sentence will determine whether agents or editors read your manuscript. It determines if the reader will do the same. Turns out, there's some truth to this. I’ve stood in many a bookstore (which dates me, I know) and flipped through various books, reading the first page before deciding which, if any, to buy. Granted, there are some really fantastic books out there with "meh" openings, but a great opening can do more than grab your attention. It can hint as to just what kind of story awaits you. Here are a few of my favorites:
"Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell.
I’ve always loved this opening. Right away we know that Scarlett is someone who will use her charm to help her get anything she wants. And that she is first seen using this charm to flirt with not one but two men, and not any two men but twins, hints at her rather shallow character. Knowing that the book is set against the backdrop of the Civil War makes us wonder what this shallow, vain creature will do to survive. And we aren't disappointed.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen
With a line like that, you know there’s plenty of prettily expressed snark ahead. And you’d be right. Jane Austen was a master at politely mocking social hypocrisy. Austen wrote her books during a time when the marriage market was serious business. What this sentence is really saying, of course, is that women want a husband; preferably a rich one. Regency England’s preoccupation with an advantageous marriage is Austen’s theme here, and from her ironic tone, it is clear that she has a few issues with it.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again." Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier.
A lyrical beginning made more so by the fact that it's written in iambic hexameter. Du Maurier's choice of a poetic arrangement for her opening is no accident. It helps create a melancholy tone that hints at loss and regret. What is Manderlay? What happened to it? Why is the narrator repeatedly dreaming of it? We are immediately given a sense that Manderlay haunts our narrator's dreams, and that she in turn haunts Manderlay. You can’t ask for a better opening for a Gothic novel.
“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Brickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Malice Aforethought. Francis Iles.
We not only know there’s going to be a murder, but we know who the murderer is; a respected doctor. Both elements were unusual in its day (1931), and were sure to grab the reader's attention. While it’s clear that Dr. Brickleigh doesn’t love his wife, it’s just as clear that despite his rather serious decision to kill her, he is not, perhaps, a man of strong convictions or action. The darkly humorous wording of “any active steps in the matter” hints that Dr. Brickleigh adventure into crime will be a macabre one. And it certainly is.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell.
“Thirteen strikes on a clock” is a proverb indicating that the previous events or "strokes to the clock" cannot be trusted. For Orwell to tell us that not just one clock, but “all the clocks” were striking thirteen means two things. One: That such an event is normal in this fictional society. Two: Nothing in this fictional society can be trusted.
"Well...I'm fucked." The Martian. Andy Weir.
I don’t care what you say. That is a GREAT opening.
Now it's your turn. What opening lines are your favorite?