An arresting beginning is vital. Period. There are no two ways about it. A good beginning is essential because it sets the tone of a novel until its resolution. What is at first an opening line will be resonant throughout the novel; this opening line will be the theme of the novel, and will ultimately propel its characters to their ends. Great writers know the importance of a good opening line and always pay attention to good beginnings.
“We are each the love of someone’s life.”
SO BEGINS Andrew Sean Greer’s heartbreakingly haunting love story, The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2004), a striking second novel that incorporates an intriguing plot twist that is by turns fascinating and horrific, told in the voice of a man who appears to age backwards.
Another good beginning is Louise Dean’s first novel about marriage and solitude, Becoming Strangers (2004), a fine display of economic writing, never wasting a word and yet revealing a wealth of emotion.
“Before he’d had cancer he’d been bored with life. Since he’d taken dying seriously, he’d been busy; he was occupied with understanding the disease and training his body to resist it.”
The opening lines of Louise Dean’s novel may not be much of a laugh, but they will stop you in your tracks. It rarely takes me more than a page or two to sense whether a novel’s going to take me somewhere worth going. In her case, those first two lines were enough. My heart stopped. And I knew she had me. It’s not just the honest darkness of those two opening line, nor the ache of truth they encapsulate. And it’s not just about the up-and-down rhythm of the words either, the pleasing arc that the collision of the two sentences somehow creates. No, most of all, I think, it’s what the writer makes you feel instantly about this enigmatic person whose life has been so vivified by death. She creates in you a naked curiosity that needs to slaked or quenched.
“Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead—familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up.”
The opening line of Colm Toibin’s The Master (2004) should offer the reader a tantalising glimpse of what to expect in the pages ahead. And hooking the reader. His prose is wonderfully precise and crisp, subtle yet incisive; it is also highly engaging and establishes a conversational and intimate affinity with the reader right at the beginning.
Also take a look at Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Ice Queen (2005), a miraculous, enthralling story of a woman who is struck by lightning and finds her frozen heart suddenly burning. It is also a magical story of passion, loss and renewal.
“Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things, they burn your tongue the moment they're spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you. I've made far too many wishes in my lifetime, the first when I was eight years old. Not the sort of wish for ice cream or a party dress or long, blond hair; no. The other sort, the kind that rattles your bones, then sits in the back of your throat, a greedy red toad that chokes you until you say it aloud.
“The kind that can change your life in an instant, before you have time to wish you can take it back.”
Some other examples of good beginnings include the following:
“I was nine the year winter came in spring, and Cait Delacey's mother, Mag of Slievecorragh, died; the winter had come and gone and surprised us with its return - sneaking furtively back to us like a fox during the night. The storm turned the sky black, the mercury plummeted, and everything beyond New Rowan froze. The snow fell so heavily and quickly it was like a hand wiping the land of every distinguishable feature. In the morning the fields were blanketed by soft-packed snow that sparkled all the way to town.”
Thomas O’Malley, In the Province of Saints (2005)
“I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain.”
Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies (2005)
“The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.”
Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2004)
“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.”
Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White (2002)
“I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Although I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he had smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.”
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2001)
“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.”
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)
“Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter’s bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned.”
Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray (1998)
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)