Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Call me Ishmael: Best Beginnings

As I near the end, I can't stop thinking about the beginning. I'm very close to finishing my book, but I keep coming back to the first paragraph. Over the past two years, I've rewritten the first paragraph far more than anything else. And I'm still not happy with it. The book opening is just so critical -- especially for an unpublished author trying to get noticed. It might be the only thing an agent or publisher reads before deciding to reject the book.

So, what makes a great book opening? Like so many things in writing, it's hard to put your finger on. For me, the perfect first paragraph should tell me everything without me knowing it. Like the start of A River Runs Through It: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing..." Only later do you realize how right that first sentence was, and how much the author was telling you with so little.

LB readers, what are you some of your favorite book openings?


  1. I like Catcher in the Rye's opening sentence--always makes me laugh "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.” It made me like Holden immediately.

  2. For some reason the first line of 1984 has always stuck with me:

    "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

  3. My second favorite, from Pride and Prejudice reads "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This genuis speaks for itself.

  4. All good ones!
    I like the opening of Revenge by Jim Harrison: “You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive.”

    And Fight Club: “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

  5. You'll have to look them up; but these are from Dad and I: "Catcher in the Rye," (which Amy already suggested), "The Fountainhead", "The Andromeda Strain", and "The Metamorphosis", by Kafka (this suggested by Nazia, who works with me). Mom..
    PS... I think you should use the scene where he touches the butterfly rash on her face as your opening.

  6. correction to previous comment:
    It is not the opener in "The Fountainhead", It is the first linein "Atlas Shrugged."


  7. And you are NOT? going to post your first paragraph for us to read?!