Openings (of stories)

Over the years I’ve read a lot of advice on how to open, and to close, a story. I don’t know how much of it I’ve absorbed, but as I work on my own writing, I can’t help but go back to my favorites novels and short stories to see how they work, what those authors did.

Opening lines and closing lines don’t always equal an entire opening or closing scene, but they’re easier to address in a blog post. At least for me. For now. I will revisit the topic, on closings, at a later date. So my task for myself this week was to identify my favorite opening lines of the spec fic I’ve read.

Easier said than done! I have more favorite openers than closers, and the opening line that has stayed with me the longest, and made the biggest impression, is from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“You better not never tell nobody but God.”), which isn’t speculative fiction at all.

Then, I started getting picky. Generally, I consider most prologues to be a waste; I don’t read them. However, prologues in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are serious business, and not just an excerpt from a later scene in the novel. Was I to count those? If not, all the WoT books start out the same way, in chapter one:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come to pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past…

And it is a beginning I love. You get a true sense of the scale of Jordan’s world with this repeat opening, of the idea of this epic being told as a story handed down to future generations, of the (sometimes) unreliable narration. Given how powerful this opening is, I decided not to count prologues. Chapter one starting lines only. Unfortunately this rule precludes including the letters preceding chapter one of Frankenstein, or Modern Prometheus. Argh. ‘Cause that first lines of the first letter,

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.”

leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it?

It’s two lines, and not from the first chapter. That’s ok. Rules or not, I included it in the blog post. It was too good to ignore.

I’m sure you’re dying of curiosity by this point, so I present to you my favorite opening lines, in no particular order:

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. – H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you say that I am mad? – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

The witch woman lived in a deserted, boarded-up plantation house, and nobody knew about her but me. – Madeleine L’Engle, “Poor Little Saturday”

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” – Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

“Oh yes,” said Dr. Phineas Welch, “I can bring back the spirits of the illustrious dead.” – Isaac Asimov, “The Immortal Bard”

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (yes, I know, not the first chapter, but a prelude. I can break my own rules.)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

I awoke to darkness. – Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. – Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below. – Chrisotopher Moore, A Dirty Job

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. – Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

“Kill that baby!” – Sherrilyn Kenyon, Acheron

I think the reason I like so many of these is that pretty much all of them set the mood for the story to follow. The flavor of Douglas Adam’s brilliant humor is showcased perfectly in that prelude to Hitchhiker’s Guide. How dare our sun be unregarded, our arm of the galaxy be backwater? It really takes the wind out of your sails, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Ender’s messianic destiny is spelled out right from the beginning by Orson Scott Card.

Asimov’s opening line to “The Immortal Bard” makes me laugh every time I think about it, but this point, having read the story so often, I’m no longer sure if it’s because I know what the punchline of the story is, or because I like the way it sets up both the reality of bringing the formerly dead to life and the arrogance of academics.

I think the kick-butt openers for setting the mood are Gaiman’s and Poe’s. The Graveyard Book‘s combination of darkness and a knife are killer, so to speak, and the frenetic nature of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” leaps out at you in his opening. It sets you right on edge.

The opening lines listed here don’t necessarily come from my favorite stories (though some do), but they are the opening lines that first came to mind when I started working on this post, and the ones that hold, for me as a learning writer, the clues to a rockin’ first line. they set the mood and stick in the memory. They catch your attention…this is probably obvious, but it’s been on my mind, and reviewing these has been a good reminder for me as I write.


About Jessica

Dork extraordinaire, that's me! An unhealthy knowledge of Star Trek, a love of books, a fondness for purring cats.
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6 Responses to Openings (of stories)

  1. Andy says:

    The first two (I can break your rules, too) sentences of Gravity’s Rainbow:

    A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

    Which also brings to mind the opening of Beckett’s Murphy:

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

    Another two sentence opener from Camus’s The Stranger:

    Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.


    Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

    And finally, one of my favorites of all time, and another two sentence entry:

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

    Sorry to wreak such havoc with your theme.

    • Jessica says:

      Fine, fine, start quoting literary fiction. Sheesh.

      If I hadn’t limited myself to spec fic, I would’ve cited Lolita’s opening, too. I don’t care for The Stranger, but that is a good opening.

      • Andy says:

        Yeah, sorry. I don’t read much spec fic these days, and what I do isn’t great. The last such book I’ve read that I enjoyed was published in 2000: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

        It does have a good opening line, though:

        I still get nightmares.

        Should’ve put that the first time around.

  2. Jen D. says:

    There’s nothing like an opening line that sucks you right in. Great post!

  3. Joanna says:

    I would like to add the opening (and closing) line to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

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