Last August I wrote a lovely little blog about Your Favorite Opening Sentence. How Language is the foundation of many of the Arts. To instruct, to classify, to share your Art you must understand and communicate with words.
And how important an opening sentence and/or paragraph can be.
I shared one of my favorite openings, the first paragraph of H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of the Cthulhu:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I love the atmospheric set up for the whole piece.
Another great opening paragraph is in Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
And, a final tribute, the opening paragraph from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
I realize two of my three examples are from the macabre side of town, but that’s precisely it — how you know from the opening paragraph what the feel of the book is about.
There are many ways to start a story. A book. Conversations, descriptions of locations, someone’s thoughts on their life. First person, third person, omnipotent. All need be done with skill and flow if the conversations and descriptions and locations are to bring us into their world.
It’s not easy. I have written many books, and some beginnings are better than others. It’s not easy catching a reader’s attention in just a few sentences.
From: Corn and Shadows:
“You cannot live in both worlds.”
The words echoed in the back of Anna’s mind like waves hitting the breakwater. Soft, rhythmic. They made no sense, at least not in their current context. She tried to hold onto the silver threads, but they slowly faded into meaningless whispers. All her mind could focus on was the slow, continuous beeping that radiated from some distant point.
From: I Dreamed I Was in Paris
To write a book about traveling to Paris is like …
To write a book about staying in Paris is like …
To write a book about what I learned in Paris is like …
And finally, from: Gaia and the Etruscans:
My name is Gaia Borealis.
I was told most introductions, most self-driven non-fiction recordings, start out with a name and an insight. Well, as you can see, my name is not of the usual variety. I suppose you could say the same about my life. Of course, doesn’t everyone say that?
All my beginnings are different. Different styles, different emotions, different points of view. Sometimes the beginnings came easy — I knew the perfect start. Others I wanted to set the personality of the main character in the first paragraph..
The point of this blog is that, if you are a writer, your opening paragraph is the most important piece of writing you’ll ever do. You need to make your beginning insightful, curious, tempting, flowing, and indicative of things to come. Catch our attention. Give us a feel for the rest of the book.
What are some of your favorite opening paragraphs? I’d love to hear what sets your reading rockets off!
6 thoughts on “The Beginning Is Everything”
Aren’t we already? We just don’t know it yet … ha!
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It is for certain that “certain sentences/paragraphs appeal to different people” just as certain genres, books, subjects, book titles, etc. appeal to different people. If we could find one that appealed to all, we’d be other-worldly!!
That is one of the most powerful opening lines ever. Maybe it’s just certain sentences/paragraphs appeal to different people. I myself love being knocked over by an intense beginning of a book or story. And having written for many years, that talent still escapes me. I mean, it’s like I get *this close* to a knockout sentence, but I don’t quite have the panache to pull it off. But I keep trying.
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I was intrigued by your comment, “your opening paragraph is the most important piece of writing you’ll ever do.” Truth be known, I had heard that before, but it never struck me quite the way it did today in your post. My favorite opening sentence? Hmmm … let me think… “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was at first a shapeless, chaotic mass, with the Spirit of God brooding over the dark vapors.” from The Living Bible.
I love your quote. There are a lot of great opening lines/paragraphs out there — I try and take inspiration from them. And thank you for the Gaia comment — she is a unique individual, an astralologer, and, from the book, a space traveller!
My favourite opening line is from Jane Austen’s 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. It makes me smile every time I see it as I know it will be a witty and clever book, which it is. I like your opening lines, especially the one from Gaia and the Etruscans.