The beginning sentence in a novel is one of the most important lines an author will ever write. It sets the tone, establishes the voice and introduces the reader to either a character, a setting or a timeframe. Sometimes all of that is apparent in a few short words.
The following killer opening sentences (in no particular order) are varied in their approach but they all do one thing – entice the reader to read on.
1.‘On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.’
The light between oceans, M. L. Stedman
So many questions! What miracle, what happened? Who is Isabel? Who lies dead beneath the small, recently made, cross?
2.‘The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.’
State of wonder, Ann Patchett
The linking of someone’s death with a piece of stationery is original. The greater attention paid to the blue paper rather than the death is unusual. Is Anders Eckman’s death important or unimportant?
3.‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
A tale of two cities, Charles Dickens
The reader’s curiosity is immediately piqued – what was so good and so bad about these times? How could they be simultaneously good and bad? The use of the pronoun ‘we’ makes it seem more personal.
4.‘Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world.’
The beast’s garden, Kate Forsyth
We have the personal against the political. In one sentence, Kate has given us the protagonist (Ava), the antagonist (the Nazis), and the timeframe (just before the second world war).
5.‘The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space.’
The last painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith
Here we have the timeframe – we know we’re in 1957 because that’s when the Russians put a dog, Laika, in space. Notice the word ‘the’ at the beginning of the sentence – this is not any old painting but ‘the’ painting, making it specific. The link between the stolen painting and the historic event of a dog in space elevates the stolen painting to the same historical significance – or so the author has intended.
6.‘In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.’
Perfume, Patrick Suskind
We can gather that the main character of this book is the gifted and abominable person. The narrator is telling us how he stands out, and even though we usually like to identify with our main character, this time it is our repulsion that makes us read on. Who is this man, who could be so talented, yet so horrible? And just how talented and horrible could he be, when there are so many others like him?
7.‘Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.’
The fault in our stars, John Green
The narrator is Hazel, and we know that she’s sixteen, and that her mother thinks she’s depressed for a whole range of reasons. It’s not usual teenage behaviour. The matter-of-fact tone is a stark contrast to the subject matter – depression and death.
8.‘Clare: It’s hard being left behind.’
The time traveller’s wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Who is Clare and who is leaving her behind? Because we have the word Clare, we know that this part is from her viewpoint and therefore there must be at least one other character’s point of view. We also know from those six simple words that she struggles with being left behind, that maybe there’s a yearning to go wherever the other person is going.
9.‘There are these wings and they’re in the sky.’
How to make a bird, Martine Murray
The key word is ‘these’ – it tells us the narrator sees things a little bit differently. The same sentence, rewritten in a more grammatically correct style would read – There are wings in the sky – but it doesn’t have the same tone or allure. The fact that the wings aren’t attached to a person or bird makes them seem more interesting.
10.‘On a cloudless summer afternoon in 1789, labourers working in the fields around Montsignac, a village in Gascony, saw a man fall out of the sky.’
The rose grower, Michelle de Kretser
So much information in this sentence! We have a specific timeframe, a setting and an unusual event. We don’t know whether the man falling from the sky is the main character or even whether he’ll survive his fall. But we understand that this is an important event, which may trigger the unfolding of the story.
If you were in a bookshop, reading these first sentences from a pile of books, which book would you choose to read?