My favourite book of recent times is Red Rising by Pierce Brown. NYT number 1 bestseller and generally gorydamn brilliant. The opening line is this –
‘I would have lived in peace but my enemies brought me war.’
This one, simple sentence does so much – not only does it immediately tell us the main theme in the book and set us up for everything that happens after, it tell us the number one thing I think a good opening sentence (or paragraph or at least page) needs and that is to show the reader what our main character wants. Then the reader can decide if they want to follow the character.
It’s like the difference between a salesman who tries to sell you a car by telling you all about his previous sales, giving you a description of his home and telling you how many kids they have and the salesman who starts by only telling you about the car that YOU want to buy.
After all, every novel/story is for the reader – this isn’t the time to show off your descriptive writing or telling us about anything else other than the main character and what they want.
In addition this line does a number of other things which make it a compelling opener.
- Inherent conflict – both externally (the war) and internally (he wants peace not to fight).
- Characterisation – shows us what kind of person the main character (Darrow) is. Many readers will be able to relate to that. Not many would rather go to war than live in peace.
- The surrounding environment/society is unstable. It’s on the brink of war. The society is divided. Something big has happened to cause this rift/divide.
Now, this book is actually a futuristic/sci-fi novel of epic proportions and the trilogy moves across the solar system, as this war builds and builds to an incredible crescendo, but that is not even mentioned in line 1. There is no need. The author knows that all he has to do is give us a relatable character with a relatable goal/want/need in a relatable situation with inherent conflict. He doesn’t mention Mars or the future because he wants to hook as many readers as possible. Now, when these elements are mentioned some may close the book, but many others, who might not have read it usually, will stay with it, because everything is set up in that opening line.
Red Rising is the first of a trilogy by Pierce Brown. Check it out here…
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’
I make no apologies for picking a classic and much quoted first line.
I first read L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ when I was about twelve. Leo’s words wormed their way into my mind and have never gone away. It was – strike that – it is still, one of those lines that makes me want to write. If I ever come close to penning something so perfect (obviously followed by a worthy story), I will die happy!
The reason this philosophical opener works for me, is not just the metaphor that we can all empathize with – there’s often something about our memories that’s intangible and lost in translation – but that it immediately compels me to want to find out what has specifically happened in the narrator’s journey to make him personally feel this way.
The use of the pronoun ‘they,’ creates a barrier or distance made up of more than just time. We feel as though the narrator is including his own character among the ‘them’ of the past. What could have happened, either then, or at some point between now and then, to cause this need for such detachment? There’s your conflict already.
The line really offers us a premonition of everything that follows. There is loss in there somewhere and one way or another we sense this is going to be painful ride.
I’ve chosen Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. It begins:
‘Amal wanted a closer look into the soldier’s eyes, but the muzzle of his automatic rifle, pressed against her forehead, would not allow it.’
The genius here for me is that the second half of the sentence quickly turns the first half on its head, challenging the reader to rethink quickly formed assumptions. We may think Amal is looking into his eyes for any number or reasons: perhaps he’s dead; perhaps it’s a romantic situation. Then we realise these possibilities are certainly not the case. Straight away we know Amal is in real danger. How has this come about? Why does she want to look into the soldier’s eyes, does she know him? Can she escape? Will he pull the trigger? Already, we care about her. And so we are drawn into this extraordinary and beautiful story. For me, this opening sentence has done a huge amount of work . . . and then some.
So, I have two of these opening lines jostling for attention.
The first is a bit of a classic, sorry, just can’t resist it, especially as I once played Mrs De Winter in a cute (aka very bad) local adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again….’
Poignant, evocative, full of suspense and mystery. I hear it and I’m there, tweeds and all. Enuf said.
My second and much more YA focused choice is taken from Lucy Christopher’s ‘Stolen’. Her first lines are:
‘It happened like this. I was stolen from an airport. Taken from everything I knew, everything I was used to. Taken to sand and heat, dirt and danger. And he expected me to love him.’
Ok, so a couple more lines than asked
for but the intense drama!!
I had to know how this was even possible – and the answer is really terrifying because the author makes it totally believable. It’s an unputdownable page-turner of a book. One of those that even gets you questioning yourself by the end.
Part 2 will feature more on opening lines from The Scribblers and our first ever vlog.