By Joni Di Placido
As the Kobo Writing Life blog coordinator, I check in on the blog stats from time to time, to see which posts are performing well, which search terms are bringing readers to the blog, and so on. Our top post almost every single week is this one, a list of Ten Winning Ways to Open Your Novel, written by Darcy Patterson and published in 2013.
The post has become a personal obsession. Sometimes it is knocked out of first place for a day or so, but week after week, it scrambles back to the top. It makes sense. The opening of the novel is so important. It’s your pick-up line; you need to catch your reader’s attention, and hold it. It’s also the most challenging part, staring at an empty page and waiting for inspiration to strike. The perfect time to type “ways to open a novel” into Google.
In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, here is an entirely unscientific and totally biased evaluation of why I like the opening lines of some of my favourite books. Think of it as Ten Winning Ways, part deux, if you will. I hope that it inspires you in some way and galvanizes you to start writing.
#1 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres
“Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.”
This is one of my favourite books of all time and you should go read it immediately if you haven’t already. The author introduces us right away to the Dr Iannis and the quirky patients he treats in his medical practice on an idyllic Greek island. De Berniere really excels at character development; Dr Iannis is only one of many relatively minor characters the reader grows to care about immensely. It’s a wonderful, humorous opening and sets the tone of the story beautifully. Seriously, go read it.
#2 To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
With this seemingly innocuous line, Lee introduces us right away to the climax of the novel, the event around which the whole narrative revolves. A Scout-of-the-future is reflecting upon a past event, one that she now knows was a turning point in her childhood. In a way, this is Mockingbird in a nutshell—a series of very heavy events, told from the innocent perspective of a child.
I first read this book when I was about 9. I loved it and have since read it many times. By telling the story from a child’s viewpoint, Harper Lee created a beautifully layered narrative; I have understood this book slightly differently with every re-read.
#3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s* Stone by J. K. Rowling
(*yeah, I know, it’s Sorcerer over here, but I am from Edinburgh and so is this book, and so I get to be right this time. Come at me!)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
This opening is compelling in the hints of dark secrets contained within this image of privet hedges and suburbia. Why are Mr and Mrs Dursley so intent on being normal, and what are they hiding?
#4 Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
I listened to the audio version of Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons (highly, highly recommend!). I just love this opening; I love the sounds and the alliteration and the implied creepiness. It encapsulates so much; the love story the narrator believes he is telling, the lustiness and dangerous obsession. The imagery of fire is clever too; the contrast of life-giving light and seductive danger. It’s the perfect set up for the dark story and a great introduction to Nabokov’s melodic prose style.
#5 The Food of Love, by Anthony Capella
“‘An Italian meal is a lively sequence of sensations in which the crisp alternates with the soft and yielding; the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple . . .’” -Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Italian Cooking
This one opens with an epigraph—a quote from another written source that prefaces the text and usually gives some sort indication of the theme or tone of the book. This is a really fun retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac; a slapstick commedia dell’arte-style romance. It centres around the sensuality of Italian food, and the epigraph (and subsequent, recipe-book structure) let the reader know that food (and the accompanying pleasure) is an important theme in the novel.
#6 Life of Pi by Yann Martel
“This book was born as I was hungry.”
Yann Martel’s fictional prologue is so clever that I re-read the book almost immediately, trying to figure out if it was a true story (or, at least, a fictional interpretation of a true story). As an opening line, it hints at the spiritual hunger that consumes the protagonist; Pi is on a constant quest for meaning and religion. It’s also a nice bit of foreshadowing for the hunger that is to become Pi’s constant companion on the lifeboat.
#7 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
This opening often appears on list of great first lines, and with good reason; it’s a fantastic opening. The whole novel is characterized by circularity and predestination, and this is inherent from the very first sentence. On a more basic level, it simply throws up so many questions that we are drawn into the story immediately. Why was the discovery of ice so special? How does the colonel end up in front of a firing squad?
#8 Americanah, by Chimamanda Adiche
“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
This opening tells us right away that Ifemelu is an outsider in the US and her unique view compels us to read on further. It’s the perfect introduction to a very personal narrative characterized by Ifemelu’s contemplative observation of a culture that is completely foreign to her.
#9 The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”
The first line of Kingsolver’s epic novel is thought-provoking and a little mysterious. Only after finishing the book do we realize that it essentially summarizes the whole narrative; a story of destruction so complete that seems surreal to the characters who lived through it. It seems here that the narrator is addressing the reader directly; it is only later that we find out who she’s really speaking to. It’s very intriguing as an opening and leaves us wondering what could possibly have happened.
#10 The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Path
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
This is such a dark first line, and so appropriate for this text. It’s summer, but this opening contradicts all the obvious connotations of summer (light, warm, carefree); this is a dark (“sultry”) season and the narrator remembers it in association with death. This also has shades of not belonging; there’s a sense of identification with the Rosenbergs, who were also outsiders.
How do you interpret the opening lines above? Do they make you want to keep reading?
And, should we keep posting about openings on the blog?
I would love to hear some of the openings of your favourite novels, and why you like them—or share the opening to your own novel in the comments!
Joni moved to Toronto from Edinburgh 5 years ago. She studied Italian and Spanish language and literature at the University of St Andrews, Scotland and taught English in Italy, Scotland, Ecuador and the Czech Republic, before moving to Canada and joining Kobo. Her favourite part of working at Kobo is helping authors be independently successful and make a career out of writing (and being surrounded by booklovers on all sides!)
Excellent post, Joni!
I’ll never forget this opening line from one of my favourite novels of all time. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving. It’s quite the run-on sentence of a first line, but it does pack a powerful punch.
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he was the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” – John Irving, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY.
Thank you! That’s a great first line too. It’s actually a really interesting exercise to analyze these!
Here’s one for you: “I am dead, but that was a long time ago.”
in that pleasant district of merry england which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and vallies which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster , in the land of ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three