by Steve Laube
The opening lines of a novel are like an introduction to the rest of the story. (Karen Ball discussed this over a year ago.) Some have become famous. “It was a dark and stormy night” is the well known beginning of that struggling novelist Snoopy in the cartoon “Peanuts.” It is also the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830) as well as the first line in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. (L’Engle admitted she was having a little fun with her readers by using that line.)
I hope you spend a lot of time thinking about your novel’s first sentence. It is a first impression. Let’s make it a good one. For as John Gardner wrote in his book On Becoming a Novelist:
“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.”
It is a wonderful tradition at the Christy Awards to read the opening sentence or two from the winning novelist as the author is making their way to the stage to accept their award.
Can you recognize any of the following first lines (without Googling them?). Give your best guess in the comments below. (Author? Book title?) The answers will be posted in the comments later this afternoon.
1) “It is 348 years, six months and nineteen days ago today that the citizens of Paris were awakened by the pealing of all the bells in the triple precincts of the City, the University and the Town.”
2) “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”
3) “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
4) “Alex Stafford was just like Mama said. He was tall and dark, and Sarah had never seen anyone so beautiful.”
5) “Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched.”
6) “On that November afternoon when I first saw Cutter Gap, the crumbling chimney of Alice Henderson’s cabin stood stark against the sky, blackened by the flames that had consumed the house.”
7) “Crazy lights swirled against the evening sky. Day morphed into the merriment of night. Cotton candy and hot dogs.”
8) “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”
9) “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out at either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.”
10) “It all began with the aurochs.”