How's that for an opening? All of Snoopy's novels begin this way. Spoofed by Charles Schulz and others as a melodramatic cliché, this sentence is a real opening line from the novel Paul Clifford, written in 1830 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
If this has become a cliché of what not to do, then how should you begin?
The first sentences of classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Moby Dick are often touted as perfect examples. Sometimes, though, trying to emulate masterpieces may place too much pressure on a writer. Really, all a good first sentence should do is make the reader want to continue to the second sentence. It may be useful instead to examine the first sentences in books that we like and analyze why they work.
I browsed through my library shelves and pulled good first sentences from a mixed bag of novels and nonfiction. Here are some opening lines that made me want to read more:
"Bonaventure Arrow didn't make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead." -- The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.
"On the hottest day in July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm." -- Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
"Let's get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case." -- Broken Harbor by Tana French
"The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship." Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
"He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years of evidence." -- Bomb: The Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Of course, what appeals to one reader won't to others. My picks are very subjective. My favorites are short; I don't enjoy (for the most part) long and lyrical first sentences. Here are some things, though, that my favorites have in common:
- They're catchy.
- They give just a bit of information, making the reader want more.
- Many of them spring a surprise of some kind.
- They start in the middle of the action.
- They establish a character, setting, or unique narrative voice.
"It was a dark and stormy night."
Let's return to that much-mocked opening. While writing this post, I discovered to my surprise that this sentence also opens A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I guess even a cliché can work in the right setting.