Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines ~ by Patricia Toht

Perhaps you've seen the cartoon. The Peanuts character, Snoopy, sits atop his doghouse. He taps out the opening line: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

This line is often mocked as the absolute worst opening line of a novel.  Perhaps the beginning of Edward Buller-Lytton's PAUL CLIFFORD might not have become so thoroughly ridiculed had the author not crammed 51 more words into his first sentence. Today, his words have even inspired a yearly contest  for a novel's worst opening.

Yet one famous children's novelist, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, used the same seven words to open a Newbury-Winning book. "It was a dark and stormy night." So begins A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle. And it works quite well, I think.

So, what makes for a great opening line (or two)? 

It can be short: "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." (HOLES by Louis Sachar)

It can be long: "I was ten years old when my little brother Louis began driving my mother's car, and by the time I was eleven, he had put over 400 miles on it." (MY BROTHER LOUIS MEASURES WORMS by Barbara Robinson)

It can be in between: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." (THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER)

It can be ominous: "Sometimes there's no warning." (OATH BREAKER by Michelle Braver)

Or cheeky: : “This chapter is a very short one. It should really have been called ‘Preface’ or ‘Introduction’, but I knew that you would never read it if I called it by such a boring name, so I have called it Chapter One.” (THE DRAGON’S QUEST by Rosemary Manning)

I recently listened to a podcast, "Tim Key's Suspended Sentence", in which comedian/author Tim Key tried to unravel the mystery to a great opening. I think he nailed it when he stated:

"A good first line is a piece of cheese in a mousetrap. 
The reader takes a nibble and, SNAP!, is caught."

Humor can be a tasty nibble. Surprise can be tasty, too. So can mystery. Or shock. The key, I believe, is to touch a basic human emotion. Make your reader feel, wonder, laugh.

But, hey, I'm still working on this whole opening line thing. Let's see what others have to say. In a post from Writer's DigestJacob M. Appel lists seven scenarios that could make for a great start:
A statement of eternal principal.
A statement of simple fact.
A statement of paired facts.
A statement of simple fact, laced with significance.
A statement to introduce voice.
A statement to establish mood.
A statement that serves as a frame.

Check out the way that Maureen Lynas pairs picture book openings with these scenarios.

Can you have examples of your own? How do the openings shared in Monday's post fit with these?

Speaking of Monday's post, I have answers to the first lines quiz, (reading left to right, top to bottom, and color-coded, too!):
3. SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick
4. THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
5. THE FINAL FOUR by Paul Volponi
6. DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver
7. GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray
8. THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER by Megan Shepherd
9. DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

How did you do? (Better than I did, I'm sure!)


  1. Patty, Great examples. great links, too. I like the list of ways to entice the reader listed by Jacob Appel, too. I always have more to learn. Am redrafting my PB bio and was mulling opening lines as I walked the Corgi this AM. Love th e title of this post. You trapped me w/your cheese.

  2. Great post! Time to go back and look at first lines once again. And put many of those titles above on my library list!

  3. Great first lines! One of my faves--that has just about every element of a great first line--is from Charlotte's Web: Where's Papa going with that ax?

    I always try to channel that line when I start a story! (Lovely post--thanks!)

    1. I love that opening, Cathy. It seems to make all of the great opening lines lists.

  4. Wonderful post, Patty. And timely, too . . . Today I revise my picture book--and I'm going to use these pointers to make that first sentence just right. Thank you for the inspiration. And for the morning laugh!

  5. Such fun - this article, Patty!
    Recently I finished the novel, WHEN YOU REACH ME, which is an homage to a WRINKLE IN TIME. so, that famous dark & stormy opening line borrowing is very present.
    Luv your examples.
    I am not well-versed in the openers the wonderful library put out. But now I have works to add to my list. This has been a neat 2-part exercise.

  6. What fun! Thanks for some opening lines to open my brain.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Sue. Let me know if you come across some great openers, too.

  7. Great post, Patricia! And then all the links? Wow. I just wish it were as easy as it looks!

    1. Oh, I know, Sandy! I never feel like I master this stuff. I'm ever the learner...

  8. I love this post, Patricia! Thanks for the great companion to Monday's post!

    1. Thanks for sticking with me, Kirsti. I know I left you all hanging for the answers for two days. :)

  9. Well done Patty! Great examples and a topic that is important to consider.
    Thank you!

  10. This is a really useful post. Thanks for the link to Maureen Lynas's post. It's also very good. Thanks for all this info.

    1. I loved Maureen's examples -- they really help connect the ideas with something very real.