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28 October 2020

What makes a powerful opening line?

What makes a powerful opening line
by Discoveries Discoveries, Writing Tips

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to create Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme that offers aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.

This week we’re exploring the power of opening lines. A strong novel opening usually does one of three things:

  1. Introduces us to the protagonist.
  2. Tells us when and where the story is happening.
  3. Sets the tone of the novel and shows us what genre we’re in.

These are not hard and fast rules, some authors choose a more experimental approach and some manage to do all three things at once! To test out the theory we’ve collated some of our favourite opening lines from recent fiction and explored the reasons why these writers are so good at hooking the reader…

Lucy Morris, Curtis Brown Literary Agent

‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.’ – Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

A cracker of a first sentence. It not only throws us straight into the plot, but also the world of the novel: the seemingly orderly suburb of Shaker Heights. Whose house was it? Why did Isabelle burn it down? And how much can we even trust the gossipy second half of that opening sentence: what actually happened?

Norah Perkins, Curtis Brown Heritage Agent

‘“I’m writing a history of the world,” she says.’ – Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively 

Lively’s first line is sweeping, challenging, surprising (given the lines that immediately follow). I know I’m going to be told a story, and I suspect it won’t be what I might have been expecting… 

‘It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people’s memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it.’ – The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate 

Colegate – a bizarrely overlooked writer, and one of my absolute favourites – hooks you in right away (who doesn’t want to read the history of a scandal?). What happened? And what happened next?? 

‘Call me Isobel. (It’s my name.) This is my history. Where shall I begin?’ – Human Croquet, Kate Atkinson 

Atkinson – genius that she is – nods to the most famous opening line ever written, cuts it off at its knees, and in a tiny handful of words introduces us to her charismatic heroine, and the sharp humour and intense humanity of her voice.  

Three incredible opening lines (I couldn’t choose just one), all doing different but equally brilliant things.  

Becky Brown, Curtis Brown Heritage Agent

‘So now get up.’ – Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel 

We’re used to entering an historical novel with a flurry of context – clothes, buildings, archaic words and famous characters – but Mantel dispenses with it all and throws her reader into straight into the blood and the muck. We join Thomas Cromwell in a moment of suspended animation, just after one kick has landed and shortly before the next, and we’re there. Mantel magic. 

Lisa Babalis, Curtis Brown Literary Agent

‘The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.’ – The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter

This book is too deliciously dark to be anything as ordinary as ‘favourite’. It wound itself into my marrow when I was a teenager, and this first line was like an arrow slicing into a target, pinpointing exactly how I felt… I still feel transported back to the maelstrom of adolescence when I read it. 

‘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.’ – The Secret History, Donna Tartt. 

You can’t argue with a dead body in the first sentence.  Especially not one called Bunny… 

Viola Hayden, Curtis Brown Associate Agent

‘Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.’ – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne 

This is a sprawling opening sentence, but every part has earned its place. We meet our narrator – and a mysterious ‘we’ – and you get such a strong sense of their wry voice. This is clearly Ireland and that inimitable Irishness is captured and conveyed beautifully; it’s not quite contemporary (‘long before’) but it’s rural, religious, hypocritical and vengeful. The word ‘whore’ slaps you around the face when you reach it after being lulled into a comfortable meander by the litany of descriptions. And it changes your impression of the direction of the book – now you know our narrator likely has a poor opinion of the church, rather than of their mother. Overall, a belter.  

Jennifer Kerslake, CBC

‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ –  The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood 

This opening line works on so many levels. It’s layered and mysterious, and immerses us in the world of the story at once – the war, the bridge, the sister – and it provides a short, sharp shock to hook us in. Accident or suicide, we wonder, and if on purpose, why? The war is over – shouldn’t she be celebrating? What’s happened to her? I love the way the first half of the sentence (passive, adverbial, objective) sets up the second, allowing the personal ‘my sister’ and agency of ‘drove’ to pull us in. 

Ria Cagampang, CBC

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through woods just outside her father’s compound.’ – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi 

I love how well this opener immediately transports you into Effia’s story. Gyasi packs so much into just one sentence. You get character, time, and place, and there’s already a sense of history and atmosphere right out of the gate!

Katie Smart, CBC

‘When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.’ – Circe, Madeline Miller 

This opening is hugely atmospheric and a great example of a first-person perspective that brilliantly introduces the title character Circe. Straight away we know that this will be the story of an outsider, a pioneer exploring an identity yet to exist. 

Danni Georgiou, CBC

‘The circus arrives without warning.’ – The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern 

This opening line is so simple but effective. It’s mysterious and promises intrigue, magic and enchantment. It is only five words long, but already you are hooked and want to know more. What is this circus? 

If that’s not enough to get you feeling inspired, check out 10 of the most iconic opening lines in literature:

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier 

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – 1984, George Orwell

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ – I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith 

‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald 

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath 

‘Call me Ishmael.’ – Moby-Dick, Herman Melville 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ – Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen 

‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy  

‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.’ – Beloved, Toni Morrison 

‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens 

We hope these opening lines have inspired you to work on the opening of your novel. To enter the Discoveries Prize you’ll need the first 10,000 words of your novel and a synopsis. Find out more.

Tweet us your favourite opening lines @cbcreative and @CBGBooks!

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