How important is the opening sentence of a novel? Critical, I would think. This is the first chance a publisher has to judge an authorâ€™s writing. With hundreds of manuscripts piling up at publishing houses, the first reader, whether itâ€™s a newbie on the job or the big kahuna him/herself, the first sentence needs to pack a punch in order to intrigue and entice. Easy? Ha! If that first sentence does its job, the book has a better chance of moving up the ladder to publication.
Iâ€™ve been thinking about opening sentences lately. So I took a stroll through a couple of web sites that offer opinions on which sentence openers deserve a place on the top one-hundred lists. Some appear only once, others multiple times. Of course itâ€™s subjective, and since itâ€™s so, I wanted to add my five cents, which I hope is worth more than two, to the opinion poll.
I found that the sentences ranged from short and simple such as Call me Ismail from Moby Dick , Herman Melville (1851) to one that was riddled with so many semi colons that stretched it to 300+words, and that left me gasping until finally reaching the last word. However, the sentence was gorgeous, heart-rending and thought provoking. That would be Double Or Nothing by Raymond Federman (1971). Check it out.
In-between the two so far mentioned were a host of wonderful openings, a few of which Iâ€™ve chosen to highlight, though not in any particular order of greatness.
1. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813). Now thatâ€™s staying power! And true no doubt, given that in the early days of the nineteenth century, as well as today, the English upper crust were excruciatingly anxious to sire an heir in order to keep the whole shebang going.
2. 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. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years Of solitude (1967). What an opening! Who wouldnâ€™t want to read on and be rewarded with a multi-generational story that serves as a metaphor for the trials and glories of the country of Colombia.
3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell, 1984 (1949). Sci-fi Schmi-fi this bears looking into. Thereâ€™s danger here and strange things are going to happen. Count on it.
4. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing youâ€™ll probably 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 kind of crap, but I donâ€™t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye (1951). This is the coming of age story that spawned a gazillion clones throughout the decades. But iconoclast Holden Caulfield holds sway. Go back and reread the hilarious scene where he loses the fencing equipment and donâ€™t be put off by the language.
5. They shoot the white girl first. Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998). That sentence is loaded with every kind of darkness and, in my opinion, compels the reader to continue. My heart actually beat faster when I read it.
By the way, I spotted the ever maligned It was a dark and stormy night etc. etc. etc. on one list. Itâ€™s really not that bad a line but somehow, through the years, became the object of derision. Since he predated Elmore Leonard the author wasnâ€™t privy to Leonardâ€™s admonition of NO â€˜WEATHERâ€™ OPENING!
Like so many authors, I labor over my opening sentences. For Moonlit Desire I chose this: The only sound pervading the still air came from the incessant rattling of the coach speeding through the night. What Iâ€™d hoped was that the readerâ€™s curiosity would lead them to wonder where the coach headed, who was inside and why was it on the road so late? Back in 1759, when people traveled by coach, they were often in danger of being intercepted by brigands. In Moonlit Desire, we find out immediately that two people occupy the coach: Catherine Bradshaw, a bride of few hours, and Jeremy Flint, the scoundrel she has married out of financial necessity. What neither of them knows is that Rive St. Clair, having spotted the couple earlier in the day, lies in wait for them so as to wreak vengeance on Flint, his sworn enemy. And so Catherine does not spend her wedding night with Flint, but with Rive who has the power to do with her as he wishes. Whew! Carolann Camillo Moonlit Desire (2012).
The vanity license plate bolted to the black hybrid read N MAN 1 when it should have screamed TR UB LE. Iâ€™d wanted to immediately set the stage for conflict, which is a staple of romance novels. In The Very Thought Of You, Molly Hewitt already knows that sheâ€™s in trouble with Nick Mancini when she spots his car. Sheâ€™s stuck her nose into his businessâ€”sheâ€™s dubbed him the San Francisco Condo Kingâ€”and itâ€™s only a matter of time before he comes gunning for her. Thanks to Mollyâ€™s interference, the tenants Nick must persuade to vacate his apartment building are holding out for 100K. So he hatches a plan to introduce Molly to Mr. Charm, a sure-fire way to get her onto his team. Since she has the face of an angel and a bod most men only dream about, as campaigns go, this one shouldnâ€™t be too painful. Molly, no pushover, is up for the challenge. Or is she? Nick is single and available and has enough sex appeal to melt titanium. But unless they reach an agreement satisfactory to both, Molly must consider him strictly catch and release. The Very Thought Of You. Carolann Camillo (2012)