The Hell Butterfly

The Hook – Getting the right opening line

“Pale speckled eggs.”

I can’t remember what book this line is from, but I do know it was the very first sentence. It was this that my creative writing tutor drew our attention to on the subject of a punchy opening to any novel. I remember the moment perfectly: He stood in the middle of the room, we watched expectantly wondering why he looked so pleased with himself, and then he says it. Slowly, one word at a time, with a smile in his voice, “Pale speckled eggs.”

His point was that the first sentence of a novel can make all the difference as to whether the reader continues on. Cliched openings can make the reader immediately heave a sigh and close the book. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s true. So what makes a good opening line?

Here is what I personally think makes a catchy opening. Don’t take my word for it as the only rule of thumb because I’m sure other writers would have different opinions. This is just what I believe would work and what I try and do in my writing.

Something different. Cliches have been seen time and time again, ‘It was a warm afternoon in July and the sun bathed the grass in its ambient heat.” Difference is key. For example, when was the last time you read the sentence ‘pale speckled eggs’? The first thing your potential reader will see should stand out from other books or stories. If they read something they’ve seen countless variations of, their interest will wain at this crucial early stage. Something unique will stick in the reader’s mind. One example can found in Wallace’s Infinite Jest – “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” This sentence could take the story in any number of directions and it so uniquely phrased that it immediately grabs interest.

A set up. Give the reader a teaser. So you’ve got a punchy sentence that has grabbed your reader, now what are you going to do with them? Reel them in. It will be confusing and conflicting for your reader if you mention the three armed ninja drop-kicking a potato in your first line and then not bring him up again. Your first line should relate to an important part of your story. It should set up something key to be revealed in that first paragraph/page/chapter. For example, it may give a brief summary of the main plot themes as in The Woman in White – “This is a story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It may reveal something about the main character, ie their personality, as in Great Expectations – “My Father’s name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.” The first sentence should give the reader an indication of something they will find out about the story.

Intrigue without over-sharing. It can be tempting to reveal too much in an opening sentence to get your point across right away. Be stingy in your first sentence. Be a tease. Reveal something but leave your reader wanting more. An opening sentence should give a hint of what’s to come but should hold enough back to reveal over the next paragraph/chapter. For example The Elder Gods – “The Land of Dhrall, if we are to believe the sometimes fanciful legends of the region, has existed in its present location since the beginning of time.” Straight away we are thinking, what is The Land of Dhrall? Who’s legends? Why would it not be in the same location as it used to be? It gives the intrigue but doesn’t give the whole game away. Similarly, The Yellow Wallpaper – “It was very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” Why was it rare? Why did they want ancestral halls in the summer? Who is John? Gilman has introduced a number of interesting variables without over-sharing It makes us want to know more.

Here are the opening lines of some of my favourite books:

Embassytown – “The children of the embassy all saw the boat land.”

The Secret History – “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

War Horse – “My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head.”

Mysterious Skin – “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life.”

And just because I can, and because I hope that I’ve followed my own rules, here are the opening lines of some of my pieces:

Bed of Roses (Chapter one, not the preface) – “The light-bulb moment: the point in time where an idea or answer pops into your head and you just know: it is going to be good.”

Meanwhile in A&E – “Bluebottle fuckers buzzing in his eyes.”

Rebellion – “The walls were painted white today.”

And one example of a mistake of mine where I fell into the cliche pitfall. This is from The Bucket List Boys – “When Richard woke up on that bright July morning, bare chest damp with a light sheen of sweat, red mark appearing where the key on its blood red ribbon had imprinted, it was that last thing he expected when his phone rang to change his plans for that day, and many to come.” I don’t like this sentence, but I like the rest of the chapter. I’ll probably change this.

For those of you who are writers, look back over your opening lines. Are they catchy? Do they grab the attention but leave the reader wanting more? Are they cliche? Perhaps share some of your opening lines here in the comments. For everyone, have you got any favourite opening lines that were particularly effective or memorable?

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