Great journeys through a book begin, oddly enough, with the beginning.

Burning the books in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
Burning the books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

 

I have always believed that a novel is only as good as its first sentence.  I realize that there have been great novels who rise above the opening line. But for me, it’s all about grabbing me with those first few words. Otherwise, the author has lost me.

That first sentence is the hook, and if it doesn’t reel me in, then I’ll never read the novel no matter how good it may be or how many five-star reviews it has received.

It establishes a tone.

It sets a mood.

I either want to read on or push the novel aside. Authors can’t afford to have their novels set aside.

They have to open with the best line they can conjure up from the depths of their imagination.

Something new.

Something different.

Something that says this book is worth your time. If you think the first sentence is good, just wait until you read the last one.

fhlgMore and more, I am gaining a fascination for science fiction. I don’t mean Battlestar Gallactica or rocket ship warfare in another galaxy. I’m talking about Ray Bradbury’s style of science fiction: great stories about intriguing characters that happen to be set in a future or a different time.

And here are some of the best opening lines I have found in the genre:

I’ll open with Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury himself: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

That’s good enough.

But his next two sentences reveal what great writing is all about: It was a special pleasure to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

I can see the fire.

I can taste the kerosene.

I feel the loss of history’s loss.

I grieve the burning of the books.

Other opening lines have their own impact with our psyche and imagination.

In his ground-breaking and controversial novel 1984, the legendary George Orwell struck an immediate and disruptive chord when he wrote: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

From Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross: “Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the final extinction of my One True Love, as close as I can date it.”

HughHoweyWebFrom Wool by Hugh Howey: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children will do.”

From Neuromancer by William Gibson: “The Sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

From The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod: “He woke, and remembered dying.”

From Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow: “I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society; to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.”

From Hyperion by Dan Simmons: The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.”

From The Soulkeepers by G. P. Ching: “Death lived up to Jacob’s expectations.”

From Axis by Robert Charles Wilson: “In the summer of his twelfth year – the summer the stars began to fall from the sky – the boy Isaac discovered that he could tell East from West with his eyes closed.”

From Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon: “At the end, the bottom, the very worst of it, with the world afire and hell’s flamewinged angels calling him by name, Lee Crane blamed himself.”

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

From A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge:  “The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.”

Great openings take you the by the hand and lead you into the book.

Great writing convinces you to continue the journey.

Great characters make the trip worthwhile.

A great ending makes you glad you took the trip and wonder what else the author has in store for you.

It all begins, oddly enough, with the beginning.

Which first lines, in any genre, have grabbed your attention and captivated your imagination, encouraging to read on because you won’t believe what’s going to happen next.

Golgotha-NewPlease click the book cover to read more about my books on Amazon. I worked hard on the opening of Golgotha Connection and hope it works for you.

 

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  • jack43

    I have rarely read a novel beyond a bad opening line. However, there have been enough occasions when I made the effort and discovered an enjoyable story beyond to make me believe that I have judged too many unfairly. That being said, I doubt that I will alter my habits this late in life. Be warned, storytellers.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jack: I offer the same warning to storytellers. I really don’t like books – even really good books – that back into a story. Hit me between the eyes from the opening line, and I’ll stick with the book no matter how good or bad it is.

      • I agree. And you know what? That approach is not all that new…classic authors also have great openings starting with Dickens and going onto Tolstoy!

        • Caleb Pirtle

          You are so right. Great authors since the first sentence in the Book of Genesis have known how to open a book, and yet so many writers want to back into the story. Don’t tell me how blue is the sky, make something happen. I can’t wait all day or until the next paragraph.

  • Darlene Jones

    “It was not the first time Connie had killed someone. But today there were witnesses.”
    The White Pearl by Kate Furnivall

    • Caleb Pirtle

      That opening line would keep me reading. Thanks, Darlene.

  • In my experience, the opening line is a hygenic factor. If it’s bad, I notice it.

    If it’s anything other than bad, I blow right by it without a thought because it sucked me in so effectively.

    If it’s that good, like F451, I’ll go back later and savor it.

    Thanks for the previews to such great writing. I hope that one day I’ll find the time to read several of these books you’ve mentioned.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I once read for enjoyment, then entertainment. Now I read for entertainment. I always learn something about how and why an author writes when I do.

  • Christina Carson

    I will take more time with that first line, for a do love a good one. But on the other hand it sets a level of expectation and if that is not maintained, I drop the book with a bang. I once read a book with an award winning first chapter and it warranted all the praise lavished on it. It was awesome and for whatever reason, the author never reached that level of writing again in that book and I never finished it nor read another by that author. The same happened to me in “Wool”. Great first line, but I never got passed the stair-climbing.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I agree, Christina. A great opening with nothing else is like walking through a movie set of the Taj Mahal. The outside is stunning. The inside is empty.

  • Bert Carson

    My new editor showed me the error of my overly descriptive beginning ways when she killed the first two paragraphs of Southern Investigation-Tucson, highlighted the second sentence of the third paragraph and said here’s how the book begins:

    “David didn’t check the map again. He knew exactly where he was heading. He followed a faint trail through the scrub for more than a mile and at a small grove of juniper he swerved off the trail…”

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Your editor was right. Never back into a story when you can leap in feet first.

  • Bert Carson

    BTW – I love your new Golgotha cover –

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Bert. Julie did good.

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