Skip to content
Advertisements

Can You Judge A Book By Its First Sentence?

Lord of the Flies: Great Opening Line

Way back when this blog had about 5 readers, I discussed this topic. So since I’ve got a few more visitors than that these days, I thought we could revisit it.

If you’ve read at least one of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I include the opening line of the novel in each review. Why?

I don’t think you can judge a book by its cover, but you might be able to judge it by its opening sentence. Whenever I’m browsing books in a bookstore (remember those?), I always flip to the first page and read the first paragraph or so.

You can learn a lot from the opening line—things like the setting, the plot setup, a fact or two about a character, the author’s style. The opening line is almost like a piece of chicken on a toothpick from one of those Asian places in the mall food court. Even that small little bite can tell you whether or not you’ll like their food.

One of my favorite opening lines to this point is from The Lord of the Flies:

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.

So many questions come from that first sentence: Why is a “boy” in a lagoon? Why is he climbing down a rock, and where is he going–or who is he running from?

Tension like that is always a great way to start a book, but great authors can also open novels in an even more subtle way. Here’s the opener from The Assistant by Bernard Malamud:

The early November street was dark though night had ended, but the wind, to the grocer’s surprise, already clawed.

I’m not really sure why I love that line so much, but I think it’s the visual. A dark, windy street in the crisp November air, and a grocer–maybe with an apron on–out in the middle of it. Sweeping? Closing his store? Relaxing on a bench? Even a seemingly mild opener like that produces a lot of questions for me.

So here’s a question or two for the weekend: Can you judge a book by its opening line? Do you have an all-time favorite opener?

Advertisements
28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Blair #

    “I’m seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.”

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  2. Matt #

    Don’t know it off the top of my head, but I’ve always like the Catcher in the Rye first sentence.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  3. Ben #

    Ever since the first time I read the book, this has been my favorite opening line:

    “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

    Only 13 words into the book and you already feel like you know one of the main characters. Plus the fact that the line is essentially a joke makes it all the more impressive.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  4. Megan #

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    I think it is hilarious and it’s from my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but have never commented. I think your project is amazing and inspiring! Keep at it!

    Like

    June 17, 2011
    • Thanks for following along, Megan! My wife loves that book as well.

      Like

      June 17, 2011
  5. “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.”

    From Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. A wonderful way to begin a book. It gives us some of the setting (medieval structure to the society), introduces a character (Prince Raoden), and gives us a conflict for the book (damned for all eternity). A wonderful opening line.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  6. I love Lord of The Flies!

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  7. First paragraph of my favorite book:

    “The day broke gray and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains. She glanced mechanically at the house opposite, a stucco house with a portico, and went to the child’s bed.”

    Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham

    Like

    June 17, 2011
    • Good one. Know that book but have never read it. One day.

      Like

      June 17, 2011
  8. Two of my favorite opening lines:

    Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – Ulysses, James Joyce

    “The primroses were over.” – Watership Down, Richard Adams

    It’s not the opening line of the book, but the following has stuck with me since I first read “Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd. I painted a these words above the front door of my home on the day I moved in: “And when you get down to it, Lily, that is the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love but to persist in love.”

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  9. “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” (From Stephen King’s The Gunslinger)

    That will always be my favorite opener.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  10. B Day #

    I know I’ve mentioned this one a few times already in other comments, but one of the best first lines I’ve ever read is from The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

    On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

    I don’t know if it’s the older form of language, or the fact that the opening sentance seems to give away the plot, but I really dig this line.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  11. Samuel Beckett’s Murphy has the best opening sentence: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” But I still haven’t read the book.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  12. Samuel Beckett’s “Murphy” has the best opening sentence: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” But I still haven’t read the book.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  13. Teresa #

    “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick) is provocative. It’s short and both shallow and deep – and gives fair warning on what is to come in terms of all the rich symbolism. The second much more complex sentence was an excellent intro to the book with a good introduction to Ishmael and to sailing.

    I can get lost in cadence and so this first (very long) line from the short story Railroad Earth in Lonesome Traveler is my favorite story beginning. You can feel the rhythm of the train and it sets the story perfectly:

    There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of Walk-up truckdrivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third Street of lost bums … and here’s all these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above the following hotshot freight trains—

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  14. One of my all-time favourite opening lines to a novel is the following from the Australian classic, ‘Such is Life’ by Tom Collins:

    ‘Unemployed at last.’

    Three words and the story is away.

    Like

    June 17, 2011
  15. James #

    “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley ,of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

    Like

    June 18, 2011
  16. The opening sentence from Tale of Two Cities stays in my mind as one of the most memorable… It was one of my favorite novels for a long time, and I loved the heavy-handed use of juxtaposition and comparison. I thought it set the novel up perfectly.

    Shouldn’t a first sentence or paragraph give you the tone, the feel, the structure of a novel though?

    Like

    June 19, 2011
  17. kiwigirlskiwiblog #

    “It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
    Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen.
    Perfection.

    Like

    June 19, 2011
  18. I think Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 has a very intriguing opening line which is all the more interesting because of the way it plays with the non-fiction/fiction distinction: “All of this happened, more or less.”

    Like

    June 19, 2011
  19. I read – “I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now–which is ridiculous since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I’ll be dead too and the age difference won’t matter.” – in a bookstore and knew that I HAD to read The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean. It turned out to be one of my favorite books. That said, though, I think you can occasionally spot a great book by a great opening line, but most of the time it’s too early to judge. But I do love special opening lines.

    Like

    June 22, 2011
  20. Well it’s not high brow literature or anything, but one of my all time favorite openings lines is from Dean Koontz:

    “Death was driving an emerald green Lexus.

    Like

    July 1, 2011
  21. Kathryn #

    “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” (All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy) The dactylic meter forces the reader to slow down and feel the solemnity and formality of the unnamed ‘his’ entry, without saying anything directly about ‘him’ and his actions. It perfectly prepares the reader for what ‘he’ will see and do next. Brilliant.

    Like

    November 6, 2011
  22. “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” (Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve)

    The rest of the book (in fact the whole series) lived up to that wonderful opening line.

    Like

    September 5, 2013
  23. Stephen #

    “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”

    Like

    February 2, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Opening Sentences That Suck | 101 Books
  2. Stephen King Talks Opening Sentences | 101 Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: