I should note that this article will be primarily concerning YA fiction, as that is what I know most about. You may notice that some of these openings use elements that I cautioned against in an earlier article. Told ‘ya there were bountiful exceptions to writing “rules.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
This one is just awesome. I adore some subtle humor in a book, and it’s a great way to start out if you’re witty enough. This short and amusing opening line tells us a lot about the character in a very short time. His name also gives an indication that he is not from the land of Narnia, but is probably from England, if this book is to be similar to the ones prior to it in the series. We know something about his age in that he is referred to as “a boy” and we know that for some reason he almost deserves such a name. So there we go, immediately introduced to a primary character of the story in an interesting way.
Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
In a refined witty style typical of Austen, she opens with a humorous and relatable statement. It may have been a more relatable sentiment at the time it was written, but it certainly still is. Moreover, it’s a foreshadowing, letting the reader know that the book is likely to be at least somewhat about a woman’s obtainment of such a husband.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
"My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog."
DiCamillo sure doesn’t waste any time, huh? I love that. She introduces the protagonist, sets the scene, and presents the catalyst all her opening sentence. Just one sentence—and it’s not even a run-on. What a marvel. The protagonist’s name is very unique, which adds interest and makes the reader want to find out more, while the macaroni-and-cheese, white rice, and tomatoes add a comfortable familiarity and give us an idea of the setting. The fact that she comes back with a dog indicates that there is some type of story to be told. Because DiCamillo introduced the protagonist and the setting, it allows her to jump right into the action after the first sentence without the readers having to wonder what the heck is going on.
Chasing the Falconers by Gordon Korman
“It wasn't a prison.
Not technically, anyway.
No bars, cells, electrified fencing, guard towers, or razor wire.
People who drove by probably never noticed the logo of the Department of Juvenile Corrections on the mailbox that stood at the end of the long lane leading to County Road 413. To them, this sprawling property was just another farm – one of thousands of dusty puzzle pieces that covered this part of Nebraska.
Farm. Aiden Falconer winced. He hated that word. Sunnydale Farm, they called it – a name so deliberately cheerful it turned his stomach.”
I should admit that I kind of have a prisoner/kidnapping/spies/mystery fetish, but I think a lot of YA readers do—at least the boys and tomboys. Is this an artistic beauty of an opening? No. But is is a successful opening? Yes, I’d say so. Why? Because it got me to read the book, even though I knew nothing about the author at the time I picked it up. It was the opening sentence alone that caused me to read the book, because in those days I would usually just stop reading the book if I wasn’t entertained by the first few pages. After all, I was an action-loving YA fiction reader.
Korman introduces the protagonist, Aiden, immediately after he sets the scene, and we already know more than we think about Aiden, even though all we were told was his name. We assume he is a prisoner in this non-prison place, and can even deduce something about his age by the fact it is a juvenile corrections facility.
Saying “it wasn’t a prison” causes the reader to want to ask “what is it then?” and thus read further. We are curious as to why there are no bars or other types of security; there is some mystery aroused; some irony. Is it a perfect opening? No, but Korman wasn’t writing to win the Nobel prize, he was writing an action-adventure mystery book for tweens. The point is, Korman did his job: he grabbed the attention of his audience, set the scene, and introduced the protagonist without too much belaboring.
Holes by Louis Sachar
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.”
I told you I had a prisoner fetish. It sure wasn’t the cover of the book that got me to read this, as I hated it, or the reputation of the author, as I had no idea who he was prior to reading the book. I believe this was a successful opening because it got me to read the book without any other sort of help, such as me already knowing about the book or the author, or loving the cover art. This is actually a lot like Korman’s opening lines. There’s a contradiction; a description of an unusual setting. Korman opens with a prison with no bars, and Sachar opens with a place called Camp Green Lake with no lake. I should also note that the first few chapters move really fast (only a few hundred words per chapter) and cover a lot of ground, while keeping the reader curious. This is the ADD generation, often you’ve got to move fast and cut to the chase to keep the YA audience’s attention.
“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus. He preferred to read comics and mystery books on the morning ride to Trace Middle.”
Hiassen then goes on to tell of Roy’s struggles that morning with a bully, and his sighting of said strange boy. Obviously, what caught my attention here was not the bullying, but the strange boy. Because people get bullied all the time, that’s nothing new. But a strange boy? Hey, I want to hear more about that!
From the opening lines protagonist seems to be a fairly typical boy of middle-school age who likes mysteries and comics. While this isn’t very thrilling, it is relatable and does the job of introducing the protagonist quickly. The protagonist himself does not need to be immediately very interesting if he serves as a window into a world where interesting things are happening—the strange boy in this case.
Half Moon Investigations
“My name is Moon. Fletcher Moon. And I'm a private detective. In my twelve years on this spinning ball we call Earth, I've seen a lot of things normal people never see. I've seen lunch boxes stripped of everything except fruit. I've seen counterfeit homework networks that operated in five counties, and I've seen truckloads of candy taken from babies.
I thought I'd seen it all. I had paid so many visits to the gutter looking for lost valentines, that I thought nothing could shock me. After all, when you've come face-to-face with the dark side of the school yard, life doesn't hold many surprises.
Or so I believed. I was wrong. Very Wrong.”
Oh yeah, this is a great one. Witty, satirical, humorous. This introduction has “engaging and fun” written all over it. With this introduction, I was SOLD. I didn’t read this book just because it was by Eoin Colfer, the author of the famous Artemis Fowl series, as at that point I hadn’t read any Artemis Fowl. The protagonist is introduced right off the bat, and he already has some very interesting things going on. A twelve year old detective named Moon? Sounds like it might be fun. And the following sentences are work of art; thoroughly engaging and entertaining. It reads as a humorous twist on a film noir private eye. There’s a bit of irony here too. People expect school yards to be full of innocent kids playing around, not a shrewd detective investigating dark and shocking occurrences. After Moon says he thought he’d seen it all, he ends with an alluring foreshadowing, “Or so I believed. I was wrong. Very Wrong.”
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
“ Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most if the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
If you're a normal kid, reading this because you think it's fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.”
Though I absolutely adored and obsessed over this series, I take issue with this opening nowadays. He does two things I would generally advice against: he addresses the readers directly, which puts up a barrier of self-awareness, and he claims the story to be true in a somewhat direct manner, which somewhat draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it isn’t true. However, back when I first read the book I was totally sold. I believed everything Percy said as if the book really was written by him, barely aware Rick Riordan had anything to do with it. At that time, I believed the story as much as one could without being considered insane. (I can’t say the same for Narnia of course, I still believe it, enough to be considered slightly insane, to be honest.)
I suppose this goes to show that what works for one audience doesn’t work for another. I was at the target audience age, 11 or 12 I believe. I was less cynical than I am now. Besides that, I wanted to believe it. I was almost looking for something to believe that was larger than my life. Percy Jackson was perfect for that. It was set in the modern world with normal kids who didn’t even know they were special. The opening lines not only gave me permission to fantasize that maybe I was one of those kids too, it encouraged it. Just a warning though, this type of opening might not have gone over so well for older readers.
Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.”
It’s often a good idea to open with the inciting incident of the story, as this line demonstrates. This opening line could be considered an understated foreshadowing. It tells the reader, “Something is going to happen soon, the doorbell ringing is going to be a catalyst for something big!” without sounding desperate for attention. And the author follows through after these opening lines, quickly moving to the catalyst of the story while introducing the protagonist.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
“The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.
When I began to ransack the archives of the National Academy of Music I was at once struck by the surprising coincidences between the phenomena ascribed to the "ghost" and the most extraordinary and fantastic tragedy that ever excited the Paris upper classes; and I soon conceived the idea that this tragedy might reasonably be explained by the phenomena in question. The events do not date more than thirty years back; and it would not be difficult to find at the present day, in the foyer of the ballet, old men of the highest respectability, men upon whose word one could absolutely rely, who would remember as though they happened yesterday the mysterious and dramatic conditions that attended the kidnapping of Christine Daae, the disappearance of the Vicomte de Chagny and the death of his elder brother, Count Philippe, whose body was found on the bank of the lake that exists in the lower cellars of the Opera on the Rue-Scribe side. But none of those witnesses had until that day thought that there was any reason for connecting the more or less legendary figure of the Opera ghost with that terrible story.”
Alas, it opens with a prologue (though this prologue is more like a forward or an introduction than a part of the story)—a prologue in which the author claiming his fictional work to be fact at that, thus inadvertently arousing suspicion that it is not. Though who am I to criticize a classic? Especially since part of me actually believes him. Loroux claims his account to be based upon reality in such a way that causes me entertain the thought that maybe Leroux really DID somehow find out about true events and build a story around them. My conclusion? If you can be as convincing as Leroux, perhaps you should indeed have a go at claiming your novel is fact.
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
“It was autumn in Venice when Victor first heard of Prosper and Bo. The canals, gleaming in the sun, dappled the ancient brickwork with gold. But the wind was blowing ice-cold air from the sea, reminding the Venetians that winter was approaching.”
It is far too poetic. How many 12 year old kids (I’m assuming that’s somewhere near her target age) are going to say, “Oh all that stuff about the autumn wind sounds like a fun read!” But I think part of that is just Funke’s style. I’m pretty sure I only kept reading after that because the book jacket promised me I was going to meet a 13 year old boy called The Thief Lord. And man, I was all over that. Bring it. Luckily for me, after that flowery opening things got a little more interesting. And yes, I ended up loving her beautiful descriptions of Venice despite myself. It was just so well-done, I literally felt like I had been to Venice myself.
So what is my final opinion on this sort of opening? It is this: don’t sacrifice who you are as a writer to fit the current market trends. Don’t sell your soul or strip down your writing just to do what’s popular. Just because a cheap vampire book might sell better than your classic tale of subtle beauty doesn’t mean you should throw out. Right now the popular thing to say is, “Use the simplest words possible! Make sure your reader never has to go to the dictionary!” People in YA fiction tell you to open your story with a shocking hooker or an action scene. And that may very well be the preferred method of actually getting youth to read your book.
But here’s an example of why you shouldn’t always do what people tell you: My mom is a poetry person. She’s the type who writes in a flowery style, and uses words that she doesn’t even know the meaning of just because they sound nice. It’s just who she is. If she stopped doing that and started trying to write a bunch of cool Percy-Jackson style action scenes, she would just lose her style and the beauty of her writing. Again, know your purpose and know your audience. My mother doesn’t write for a YA audience, she has an educated adult audience in mind—the kind of people who read Jane Austen. Conclusion to be drawn: If it’s your style, if it’s who you are, don’t substitute it for something you consider second-rate. Do what you want to do in the very best way you can.
I think what most of these opening lines have in common is that they spark curiosity. Of course, there is a difference between making a reader being curious, and making a reader having no idea what is going on. If you readers don’t understand a thing, it won’t make them curious—it will just send them away confused. They won’t want to know more simply because of a lack of information,they will want to know more because the information you have given them has piqued their interested while expressing that there is still more to be seen. The reader should be enticed to find out more about the character and the situation, and should be asking, “what will happen next?”
A Few Types of Openings to Try
A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected. A restaurant with no food, a fashion model pigging out, a place where the good people are in a prison and the dangerous people are kept outside the fence. Things like that. Irony can be a hard concept to grasp, but it is very engaging when executed well.
The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, a car crash, accidently bumping into a stranger at the grocery store, etc.
This is pretty self-explanatory. The question could be rhetorical. It should be interesting and thought provoking. Like, “what would you do if you had one day to live?” But not that, because it’s overused. Something like, “If you had to decide between marrying someone you didn’t truly love, or being forever single, what would you do? Because that was my choice.” I know that one isn’t ever so original either, but you see where it’s possible to provoke some interest here.
A simile or metaphor. Make sure to avoid colloquialisms here, come up with your own ideas. “Me trying to convince my sister that I’m not a secret agent is as hard as Galileo trying to convince the Pope that the world was not flat. Except Galileo had it easier, because the Pope was wrong.” (I know that was bad grammar, and maybe not historically accurate, but you get the idea.)
State a problem, or show how the character is trying to overcome the problem. For example, the protagonist missed the boat and is trying to figure out another way of getting out off the island, as the next boat won’t come for a month, and is climbing to the highest point on the island to get cell phone service.
This would preferably be your protagonist, but it could be someone else, as long as your readers don’t mistake the character you mention as the protagonist when he’s not. A teenage girl who is an outcast at her school is old news. You could introduce the character by observing what they are doing, saying, or how they look. Preferably all three at once. Express what is unique about the character.