Essays

The Art of the Opening Sentence

By posted at 8:41 am on July 8, 2014 22

570_ishmael

“To start with, look at all the books.”

coverThis is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”

Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?

So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.

I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.

Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.

But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?

covercovercoverAs a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.

coverLater, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.

coverIt would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here­­––the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?

coverJumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:

“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”

Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:

I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.

Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”

coverI do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.

coverA novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.

In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.

coverTwo of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that.

coverEleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:

From the variety of their comportment and dress­­––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.

Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.

Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.

coverThen, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.

Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics.

covercoverZadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)

coverAllusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.

But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.

coverAnd last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor––if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.

covercoverToni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.

I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.

coverPerhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.

Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr





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22 Responses to “The Art of the Opening Sentence”

  1. Barry Lyons
    at 11:48 am on July 8, 2014

    Here’s a favorite opening sentence. It’s from “Mr. Summer’s Story” by Patrick Süskind:

    In the days when I was still climbing trees—long, long ago, years, decades ago, I stood only a tad three-foot-three, wore size-eleven shoes, and was so light I could fly—no, I’m not lying, I really could fly back then—or at least almost, or let’s say it would actually have been within my power to fly in those days, if only I had truly wanted to and had tried really hard, because . . . I can recall very clearly that one time I came within an inch of flying, it was in autumn, my first year in school, I was on my way home, and the wind was blowing so strong that even without spreading my arms, I could lean way forward against it like a ski-jumper, or farther even, without falling over . . . and when I ran against the wind, down across the meadows of School Hill—our school, you see, was on a little hill outside the village—just by pushing myself off the least bit and spreading my arms wide, the wind lifted me up, and without trying I could leap five, ten feet high and bound forward thirty, forty feet—well, maybe not quite that far and not quite that high, what difference does it make!—but at least I almost flew, and if I had unbuttoned my coat and held it together tight in both hands, spreading it like wings, why, the wind would have lifted me off for good, and easy as anything I could have sailed off School Hill, out across the valley to the woods and down to the lake, where our house was, and to the boundless amazement of my father, my mother, my sister, and my brother, who where all much too old and too heavy by then to fly, I would have traced an elegant curve above our yard and then floated out over the lake, almost to the far shore, and drifted gently at last back home, just in time for lunch.

    Isn’t that great? I just love how it lands on its feet.

  2. Nige
    at 1:40 pm on July 8, 2014

    Peter De Vries’s The Vale of Laughter begins ‘Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to. Call me any hour of the day or night…’
    The difference a comma can make…

  3. Steven Kellar
    at 3:55 pm on July 8, 2014

    If you van’t print this in a pronter friendly format, what good is it?

  4. Moe Murph
    at 5:27 pm on July 8, 2014

    Steven Kellar,

    Have you tried printing form your browser (mine is Internet Explorer).

    I print as a PDF, then delete non-content pages from PDF, print in color. Looks pretty good.

    Moe Murph

  5. Moe Murph
    at 5:33 pm on July 8, 2014

    The author of above comment sincerely hopes she has not inadvertently violated or acted to encourage others to violate copyright law…she uses her color copies strictly for relaxing subway reading when her tired eyes have had enough of looking at screens.

    Moe Murph
    Longing for the Feel of Paper In Her Grubby Paws

  6. Robert Barrett
    at 7:32 pm on July 8, 2014

    They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
    –James M. Cain, Postman….

  7. Gert Loveday
    at 8:00 pm on July 8, 2014

    ‘I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month. Then it will be the month of April or of May. For the year is still young; a thousand little signs tell me so.’ (Beckett, ‘Malone Dies’)
    ‘I did not want to know, but I have since come to know, that one of the girls when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t been long back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror,unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father;s gun at her heart’ (Marias, ‘A Heart so White’).

    As for last lines, the last line of Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘At Freddie’s’ simply stops your breath. I won’t say what it is because you need to read the book.

  8. Andrija F.
    at 7:51 am on July 9, 2014

    The moment one learns English, complications set in. – Chromos by Felipe Alfau

  9. Book News: Amazon Makes Direct Offer To Hachette Authors | NHAT NET
    at 4:00 pm on July 9, 2014

    […] Jonathan Russell Clark considers the art of the first line: “[W]hat I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules.” […]

  10. Laurie
    at 7:50 pm on July 9, 2014

    “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

    from LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, by Gabriel García Marquez.

    This sentence intrigues the reader I believe because it mentions two beautiful things: almonds and unrequited love, and makes the reader wonder why they would go together. Also the word bitter goes with the word unrequited in that one who suffers from unrequited love may well become bitter. The sentence also mentions fate, as if there is only one possible outcome of unrequited love, and what could that be?

  11. Darren Burnett
    at 8:17 pm on July 9, 2014

    “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

    How could you not read the rest of The Crow Road by Iain Banks?

  12. HP
    at 7:42 am on July 10, 2014

    There is a typo

    “But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writer aren’t as imaginative.”

    Should be “writers”

  13. C. Max Magee
    at 8:40 am on July 10, 2014

    Thanks HP. We’ve fixed

  14. Kim
    at 1:20 pm on July 10, 2014

    “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
    One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

    “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another begun; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”
    The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

  15. James Cappio
    at 1:58 pm on July 10, 2014

    “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from that animal on her return from High Mass.”
    –Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond

  16. Aboubacar Ndiaye
    at 2:26 pm on July 10, 2014

    Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End

    “We were fractious and overpaid.” I love how abrupt and tense and American this line is.

    Philip Roth’s American Pastoral “The Swede.”

    Toni Morrison’s Paradise is the best non-GGM first line ever: “They shot the white girl first.”

  17. Mark
    at 3:44 pm on July 10, 2014

    Funny, I read Steven Kellar’s comment as a first line, perhaps from a recent overlooked novel about a frustrated, middle-aged, unpublished poet who rails at the e-publishing establishment in frequent letters to the editors.

    I even googled it.

    Turns out it isn’t.

  18. Don
    at 7:05 pm on July 15, 2014

    Anthony Burgess in Earthly Powers: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

    And William Gaddis in A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”

  19. Daniel
    at 7:48 am on July 16, 2014

    Something genre-based for you:

    “I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.”

    Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, where the titular character is the badguy and a top-tier Epic who’s invincible. And he’s not a superhero. Those don’t exist in this book’s world.

  20. Friday Links | Writing and Rambling
    at 9:02 am on July 18, 2014

    […] The Art of the Opening Sentence – We discuss how important first sentences are all the time, but this article gives you a wonderful peek into why that’s true. […]

  21. C.V.
    at 1:27 pm on July 18, 2014

    “I am an American, Chicago born- Chicago, that somber city- and I go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”- Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

    “He- for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it- was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”- Virginia Woolf, Orlando

    “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”- Samuel Beckett, Murphy

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”- George Orwell, 1984

  22. Stephan J Harper
    at 4:56 pm on July 27, 2014

    “Though I haven’t ever been on the screen I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party – or so I was told. I put this down only to indicate that even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go round.” Opening of THE LAST TYCOON, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about Hollywood and his first work using a first-person narration by a female character.

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