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Stephen King Talks Opening Sentences

I’ve talked a good bit about opening lines on this blog (here, here, and here, for instance). I love the opening lines of novels so much that I even include them in all of my reviews.

To this point, my favorite opening line is from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.

So much there. What war? Why did she drive a car off a bridge? Why so specific with 10 days? Is it all connected? Atwood throws your right into the middle of the action.

And although I’m not a huge fan of Lord of the Flies, I really love the opening line of that novel as well.

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

Who is this boy with fair hair? Is he running from someone? Why is he climbing down a rock wall, headed toward a lagoon of all places?

So all that to say I really love this article by Stephen King on the importance of a novel’s opening line.

King spends months, and even years, writing the opening lines to his novels. He talks about the different types of opening lines and some of his personal favorites from his own novels. One of the most important things an opening line does, according to King, is introduce the reader to the “voice” of the novel.

A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.

Look at some of King’s opening lines. Doctor Sleep, which is King’s new sequel to The Shining, has a great opening line:

On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.

Or how about this opening line from It:

The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

That’s strong. To this day, that book still freaks me out. I hate clowns.

One of my favorite parts of reading a novel is opening the first page and reading that opening line. The first sentence doesn’t make or break a novel, but it can set the tone. It’s like opening a door into a dark room. What are you going to find when your eyes begin to adjust and you can see?

What’s your favorite opening line?

Read the full Stephen King article at The Atlantic. 

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47 Comments Post a comment
  1. IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you,ll 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 crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J.D Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  2. “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  3. I had to wikipedia Margaret Atwood because her name was so familiar (yes, wiki’d), and couldn’t believe how many works she had.

    At any rate, I tend not to remember opening lines. I really don’t. I think I remember more closing lines. The most vivid of which is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I finished that for the first time in 3rd or 4th grade, and I can still remember being so touched by the words that I wrote them down in a separate piece of paper because I never wanted to forget them.

    “I cried for TJ. For TJ, and the land.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  4. One of my favorite opening sentences is from ‘The Call of the Wild’ by Jack London. “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  5. deweydecimalsbutler #

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

    Like

    August 19, 2013
    • jamielynne82 #

      Yes! Love that one 🙂

      Like

      August 19, 2013
  6. Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  7. wetpenguin77 #

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  8. “Call me Ishmael.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on misplaced smiles.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  10. “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.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  11. My favorite opening line is actually one of King’s:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    (From The Gunslinger)

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  12. My girlfriend bought me a framed lithograph of the first page of The Great Gatsby. Probably one of the best gifts I’ve ever received

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  13. jamielynne82 #

    Great post! I would add: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

    And I’m betting IT will haunt my dreams tonight… 😉

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  14. Shawntaye #

    I’m confused. I just started reading “The Shining” and the first line in my book is “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
    • You’re right! I misinterpreted the article, and it’s been awhile since I read the book so it made sense. That line is actually the first sentence of Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining. Good catch.

      Like

      August 19, 2013
      • Shawntaye #

        Oh, ok. I thought I missed something! It is a good first line. I’ll have to read the sequel too. 🙂

        Like

        August 19, 2013
  15. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
    Ever since I found a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in our new house as a teenager, it’s been my favorite book.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  16. “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed.” – Canada, by Richard Ford.
    I had never read Richard Ford before, and it was after reading that first line that I decided to buy the book.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  17. I have a top 3:

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

    “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea
    –Just the fact that Hemingway chose “he,” not “there was an old man” or something else.

    “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, he could see them hitting.” Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  18. Allyson #

    Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Grave”: The Grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  19. Lesley Dawson #

    The importance of opening lines cannot be overestimated. Thank you so much for the links to the articles featuring Stephen King. He’s my writing hero. 🙂

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  20. Reblogged this on kevinsterne and commented:
    This peaked my interest on this dull Monday.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  21. I’ve always loved, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
    Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis.

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  22. Technically two lines, but my fav is: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  23. Tyler get 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. – Fight Club

    Like

    August 19, 2013
  24. “In a certain corner of la Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentlemen, who adorn their halls with a rusty lance and worm-eaten target, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of a starved greyhound.”

    ~opening line and a VERY long first sentence.
    Don Quixte, Miguel de Cervantes

    Like

    August 20, 2013
  25. In James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, the short story ‘Eveline’ begins – “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.”

    Simple yet very clever (at least I think so)

    Like

    August 20, 2013
  26. Reblogged this on Bookabye Baby and commented:
    I always knew there was something that captured my attention from the first page, but I’d stupidly never focused so much on the opening line of a novel. I’ll have to be more conscious of this in future, because it definitely sets the tone.

    Like

    August 24, 2013
  27. “My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
    I counted.”
    – On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.

    Like

    September 25, 2013
  28. I honestly thing all clowns should sue Stephen King!!
    Have you ever tried to write an opening sentence…it’s really difficult! you need it to contain enough information to grab the reader’s attention while at the same time not giving them too much so they are still hooked.

    Like

    October 9, 2013
  29. I couldn’t agree more. One of my favorites:

    “In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.” – Ben Okri, The Famished Road

    Like

    November 15, 2013
  30. Stephen #

    “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

    Like

    February 2, 2016

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