It’s a truth universally acknowledged that writing openings is hard. One might say it is the best of times and the worst of times.
Alright, alright, I’ll stop. But even putting aside wordplay, openings are difficult, whether you’re dealing with fiction or nonfiction. That’s why I thought it’d be fun (and educational) to analyze the openings of my top-rated books to 1) see examples of techniques that hook readers from the first sentences and 2) see that great stories don’t always have the greatest openings.
This post will only include 15 fiction books, all ranging from 4-5 star ratings from me (you, of course, may think they deserve fewer stars). I’m only including books I’ve read, both because I think it’s unfair to talk about stories I’m not familiar with, and because it helped me narrow down examples to use. The next post will cover my 4-5 star nonfiction books—I’m quite excited to get to that one! But for now, let’s dive into some fictional first pages.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Carlisle translation)
“About nine o’clock on a late November morning during a thaw, the train from Warsaw was nearing Petersburg at full speed. It was so wet and foggy that there was still hardly any light, and from the train windows it was difficult to distinguish anything ten yards on either side of the tracks. Among the passengers there were some returning from abroad, but the third-class compartments were the most crowded, mainly with ordinary people on business coming from no great distance. As usual, everyone was tired, everyone’s eyes were heavy from a sleepless night, everyone was chilled to the bone, everyone’s face shone with the yellow pallor of the fog.”
This excerpt cuts off right before some great character introductions, which is a shame because I think they make the opening of TI even better—but let’s constrain ourselves to the first paragraph only. We’re immediately given time and place information: hour of the day, month of the year, location (both where the train came from and where it’s going), weather, and, finally, an idea not only of the quantity of how many people are at the location, but what they look and feel like in that moment. This is a great example of using the narration to hone the readers’ “eye,” going from largest to smallest in order to focus on what’s really most important about the scene. To me there’s a very cinematic quality about this paragraph—I can envision a movie opening following this information. The downside is that there isn’t the modern sense of “action” that’s often wanted or expected. We also don’t meet any of the central cast, which to some would be bad, and to others wouldn’t matter as much (because we do meet some of them in the paragraph immediately after). Overall I think this is a strong and (pardon the pun) classic way to open the story, albeit without any overtly flashy or memorable lines that could hook readers even more quickly. I give it a 7/10.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Garnett translation)
“Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this ‘landowner’—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else.”
The reader is introduced to the main character (and main family) and the main plot of the story in the first line alone. It’s the modern equivalent of saying “spoilers!” without giving anyone the opportunity to look away before you tell them. Compared to the last opening, Dostoyevsky starts TBK with much more immediacy—but it’s not so immediate, because the narrator is recalling events that happened thirteen years prior. The use of a narrator to look back on events seems to be more common in older books—nowadays we’re advised to drop readers into the action as it’s happening, or at least do a showier job of hooking their interest. However, I think this opening captures many of those qualities, including having a distinct “voice” for the prose from the beginning (omnipotent narrators have personality, too!). The downside—which I experienced the first time I picked up this book—is that it can be hard to orientate yourself in a story where you don’t know the character’s before you’re introduced to their names. But all things considered, I think this opening sets up immediate interest and, by getting the main plot point out of the way, allows readers to focus on the process of getting there (a.k.a. what leads to and follows Fyodor Karamazov’s death) rather than what’s happening. This is a technique used in more literary books and can work well, as it does here. I give this opening 8/10.
True Grit by Charles Portis
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
This book has one of my favorite opening lines, hands down. In 42 words we get a) a distinct narrative voice (, b) a sense of time period (notice the types of words used, how they’re used, punctuation, etc.—it doesn’t sound modern, nor excessively old), c) an interesting main character (14-year-old girl going to avenge her father?), and d) the basic plot (vengeance!). The following sentence gives us more information and builds upon the storyteller quality of the narrator, which is one of the shining hallmarks of the novel. By revealing all of this information upfront, we’re “hooked” not on the mystery of what happens, but how it happens, and whether or not our narrator succeeded in her quest for justice (or, revenge). Dare I give this a 10/10? I do think that the second line is a bit repetitive, although it serves to establish the narrator’s voice, so I’ll bump it down to a 9.5/10, just to be fair.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.”
This first line seems almost modern, although Du Maurier published this book in 1938. Most readers will immediately think “What’s Manderley? And why again?” which is precisely the sort of “hook” that keeps people reading. The downside of this opening, if viewed in isolation as I am now, is that the next details don’t conjure a particularly vivid image—apart from the sense of abandonment, and the implied sense that the narrator had not left Manderley in that state, there aren’t any smaller hooks. This isn’t bad, per say; readers will likely keep reading far beyond this paragraph just based upon the first line’s intrigue, but there could be more small details inserted to build that interest more. Modern audiences also may think the “dream opening” is too cliché by now, but since the book is older I don’t count it as a mark against it. All these things considered, I rate this opening 7/10.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
“1801.—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly, a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven—and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed toward him when I beheld his black eyes withdrawn so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.”
This opening has several of the elements present in the other openings thus far: immediate time and location information (1801 is pretty precise! And we’re in the English countryside, far away from civilization), some vague sense of the narrator (a tenant renting a house in said secluded countryside), and an introduction to the central character of the book, Heathcliff. We get not only a sense of Heathcliff’s appearance but his temperament, too, which compounded with the knowledge of where he’s living, gives us a pretty strong introduction considering we aren’t actually meeting him on the page. On the other hand, this opening goes against much modern wisdom about openings: not from the perspective of the main character or any main cast (in fact, this whole book is told by second-hand knowledge, which would not fly for most current-day books) and told as though we’re reading a stranger’s journal, which doesn’t help immediate establish interest in the person telling the story. This is also the “oldest” sounding opening thus far and has slightly clunky punctuation, even when looking at writing styles of that time period (the 19th century). Do I dislike these things? Not particularly, and I wouldn’t put down a book immediately because of them. But I do think the good parts of this introduction do seem as good in this day and age, for a variety of reasons, and even I put this down once before giving it a second try because of the narration style. Thus I give this opening a 6/10.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
Moving away from classics for a moment—this opening is thoroughly modern and thoroughly cinematic (if you’ve read this novel, you’ll down is one of Doerr’s strengths). The first sentence is short and raises questions with its combination of vagueness and description (what are “they”? Why are they pouring from the sky?). Then we get very vivid pictures of what “they” are doing as they pour—and only at the end, although not very long after that first sentence, do we get an idea that they’re leaflets of some kind, warning of some imminent and serious danger. The papers’ quiet fluttering starts to feel like the calm before a great thunderstorm. And in total there are only 47 words used to create that much atmosphere! This is rather literary in style, which may annoy some people, but the use of such strong nouns and verbs is a great example of how you can tell your audience a lot of information in not a lot of time if you pick your words well. We also don’t get an idea about the main plot or the main characters, but you don’t need to cram every bit of information into your first paragraph, especially if the genre you’re writing doesn’t require it (for instance, setting detail might not matter in character-driven or YA books). I give this opening a 9/10.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.”
Opening with a thematic sentence isn’t as common, especially nowadays, but here is a very well-known example that showcases how much of a “hook” such introductions can be. Tolstoy tells us something central about the story without actually telling us about the characters or plot, which maintains that sense of “what’s going to happen?” while also, gently, letting us know this probably won’t be a happy story for the characters (why would he tell the story of a happy family if, in his own words, they’re all alike?). Statements like these can work regardless of if a reader agrees or not, because either way they want to know why the author thinks that’s the case, or at least, see how the story might prove that philosophical tidbit. The paragraph following that line introduces us to an example of a very unhappy family, supporting that “thesis statement” of the novel’s theme, and also gives us immediate conflict: tension between husband and wife after discovery of the former’s affair. In a much more subtle sense, there are hints of time period, location, and the status of these characters embedded in this paragraph as well. So, while this isn’t my favorite opening, it is still a good one, and worthy of a rating of at least 7.5/10.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“To Mrs. Saville, England
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.”
Here’s another example of using written correspondence (letter, diary, journal) to convey information about the narrator, plot, and characters—but unlike the opening of Wuthering Heights, there are very few details about the setting or who is going to be important in the story. We know the narrator is writing from St. Petersburg in December sometime in the 1700s, to a woman (his sister) back in England. That’s somewhat intriguing, but without context lacks a very strong “hook.” Then, the first lines of the letter give a sense of the era in which the story takes place, but does not specify what “enterprise” the narrator is undertaking, nor why it might be dangerous—or, important, since readers need to know why information matters to them before they get invested in the story. There also isn’t a lot of “style” to this narrator’s voice—no usual punctuation, no sense of personality, other than that he is the type to undertake a dangerous trip and that he cares to reassure his relatives. It’s not a bad opening, per say, but it lacks any strong element to make it more than sufficient. I give it a 5/10.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.”
The greatest strength of his opening is the establishment of a clear narrative voice—even though there’s nothing particularly unusual, the sentences read smoothly, clearly, and with some little hints of practicality and style that make you want to keep reading. They’re likely older, perhaps very old, and recalling their past as if telling a story to a relative or friend. While this isn’t an unusual technique in writing, it does work, and for good reason. We also get some immediate character and plot information that, if we presume the writer is telling it to us for a reason, will be important later—which then makes us wonder why it’s important that Jem broke his arm when he was almost thirteen. To describe this opening overall, I’d call it subtle: at first it may not seem all that spectacular, but the longer you think about it the more you realize there’s more to consider (which seems appropriate, considering the story). Still, it’s not the strongest opening when you isolate it from the following paragraphs, so I’ll only give it a 6/10.
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.”
Lewis gives us a very strong character opening here, as well as hints about the setting—and that’s just considering the first sentence. The narrator is an old woman, royalty of some sort, isolated and ailing in health, living in a world where gods are to be feared but not fearing them. I can almost hear the narrator’s speak, the indifference masking deeper feeling, the crackling quality that comes with age and makes the voice deepen. Not only does that present us with a distinct person through which to view the ensuing story, but it raises a lot of questions: why doesn’t she fear the gods, especially if they can harm someone if they become angry enough? Who are the gods, anyway? Why is she without family and almost without friends? There’s also something refreshing about the brevity of this style that, especially to modern readers, makes it easy to want to keep reading. I give this opening a 9/10.
Rook Di Goo by Jenni Sauer
“Cadet Elis needed sleep.
As she stepped from the doctor’s office onto the crowded street of Cyrene, she knew the wisest course of action would be to return to the barracks. After four long months of recovering from a gunshot wound, she’d finally been given a clean bill of health and had completed a mental assessment; she was officially cleared to return to duty.”
Speaking of brevity, here’s another example of how a lot can be implied in few works: four, to be exact. We’re introduced to the main character—Cadet Elis—and told she needs sleep. Readers are then led to ask “who is this cadet, and why is she so tired?” They might also wonder what sort of cadet she is, and if that has any bearing on why she needs to sleep. Some of those questions are then answered in the next lines—she’s recovering from a gunshot wound and is, presumably, leaving the hospital to go back to her duty as a soldier. But the sentence “she knew the wisest course of action would be to return to the barracks” implies that she isn’t actually going to go there, which then begs the question, “what is she going to do instead?” We learn that pretty quickly in the next few pages, but just looking at these lines in isolation, they accomplish a character introduction, backstory, and even potential motivation without a lot of fuss or complication. This approach works well for modern readers who want information quickly while also not going for an overly sensationalized approach or dropping us into action without context. I give it a solid 7/10.
Operation Grendel by Daniel Schwabauer
“Like every journalist, I lie for a living.
In this case, I had to become someone else in order to get the story. I’m not who I say I am.”
Talk about a strong character introduction! What’s interesting about this opening, apart from the brevity of it, is that the narrator immediately makes themselves unreliable—if they lie for a living, are they already lying to us? If they aren’t who they say they are, who are they really? For a novel that deals with themes of propaganda and the human mind, this is a perfect way to drop the readers into that mindset without telling them outright or giving away the plot—even though the main character lying is, in fact, integral to said plot. This one gets 8.5/10 from me.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.”
This one is another setting-heavy opening (which seems to be fairly common with older novels such as JE). Although the month isn’t specified, it’s likely late autumn or winter, since the weather is cold and rainy and the landscape is without greenery. We can also assume this takes place in England by virtue of the author, although it’s not specified in-prose. However, we don’t get much more information other than Mrs. Reed dines early—but we don’t know what relationship the narrator has to the woman, what the woman is like, etc. So while this opening isn’t bad in any regard, it doesn’t quite have the level of intrigue to be enough on its own to keep readers going—although, of course, the following paragraphs give us more information about those things. I give this opening a 5/10.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”
Here’s another example of a thematic opening, coupled with a very interesting introduction to the narrator of the novel—and although I preferred Anna Karenina as a book, I prefer TGG’s opening more, if I compare the two (as they’re the only ones on the list with these sorts of intros). This is in part because of the strong sense of voice in this passage—the book was published in 1925 and it truly feels that way, although there’s not one huge giveaway that it’s historical. More than that, however, it introduces the person through which we will view the story and presents that person’s perspective on the world very clearly: he’s purposely non-judgmental, which allows him to befriend a wide array of people from the most unique to the most boring. And this tidbit also implies that we’re going to meet some of those unique people throughout the course of the book (not simply because it’s also the title and in the synopsis, if we read it). Much like the opening of TKAM, there’s a lot of subtle hints about the story that are told, but the voice of the narrator starts off a bit stronger here, which is why I give it 8/10.
I Am Legend by Richard Matteson
“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
I hardly talk about this sci-fi classic, but I read it several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it (it’s probably due for a re-read, along with several others on this list). And no, it’s not very much like the movie with the same title—it’s a lot better. But! Just considering the opening, this is another example of short, to-the-point writing packing a lot of intrigue. We’re introduced to the central character, but more importantly, we’re introduced to the dystopian world in which he lives—where “they” come out at nightfall before he can get back to safety. And what are they? Why are they dangerous? Why do they emerge at night? Where is he getting back to? If you read the synopsis you’d have an idea of what “they” are, but even so, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered from this first line alone—and raising lots of questions is the best way to draw readers’ attention. I give this opening 8.5/10.
This post is certainly one of my longest, but I hope this was a fun and helpful look at some good (and some mediocre) opening lines and paragraphs. What are some of your favorite fictional openings? Comment below—I’d love to know! And be sure to check back in two weeks for the nonfiction version of this exercise!