For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
And count me in. With these concisely atmospheric opening sentences, the reader is instantly thrust into the setting and mood of a novel. You probably already know these words kick off, in order, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. If you’re anything like me, I didn’t need to tell you that. You have read these books and read them more than once. So you know what I am talking about…sentences like these pull the reader immediately into another world, a world of the writer’s imagination, and a world the reader wants to join. They manage to hint at a universe we can see, taste, smell and fully inhabit for as long as the pages last. Longer for our favorites, for they will become our touchstones and references and, for the most special of them, books we return to over the years. Here is my very informal list of some favorite opening lines of novels that don’t disappoint!
- “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Okay, most of us love Rebecca and can quote this sentence. But why is it so evocative? What does it do to us in a few seconds that keeps us reading this book? It sets a tone immediately and tips us off to a couple key points. First, it lets us know that something is lost to the narrator: a place called Manderley. And I, for one, want to know why. Why is this person dreaming of Manderley? It sounds like he/she can’t go there. Which naturally makes me want to go there, myself. Secondly, beginning a novel with a dream creates a hazy, unreal feeling. It evokes a gothic mood where the reader needs to pay attention to what may or may not be reality. And the author has hooked me already.
- “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for
the first time.”
I don’t know about you, but my socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip, when I picked up a copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s evocative thriller, The Shadow of the Wind. True confession—and apologies to the country of Singapore, which I’m sure is lovely—I missed the whole thing! I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafon definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.
- “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, catapults us back to our own childhoods, to a time when the night was scary and boogeymen could hide around corners. Or under beds. Or inside closets whose doors had been left ajar. I love the fact that Ms. L’Engle plays with language here. She uses a phrase we adults have heard many times—one we might classify as a cliché—and reminds us that clichés becomes so for a reason. They say something in just the right way, a way that instantly telegraphs a meaning and one that bears repeating. So, when L’Engle opens a book with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” I am a sucker for it. I know she is giving me a little humorous wink and it delights me.
- “There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting
round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs.”
Though these are two sentences, they function, for me, as one. In Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford grabs me with nostalgia. I long for a world I never lived it (I grew up in a mid-century ranch house in suburban Detroit), but one I wish I did. A world of large families and tea tables in front of roaring fireplaces. A world where families inhabit houses across many generations. A world where the hall is a room and not a narrow passage from bathroom to bedroom. Very much like the opening line of Rebecca, these sentences also hint at the fact that something has changed, that the writer is pointing out this table to let us know that, though it may still be sitting in the same spot it always has, the people, or some of them, anyway, are no longer there. Once again, I am drawn in and want to be a part of this world, these people, and this house!
- “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in
January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Wow! Jeffrey Eugenides packs a treasure trove of information into a small package with this opening line of Middlesex. We know where we are (Michigan—both Detroit and up north, as we Michiganders call it), we know when we are (the middle of the twentieth century), but we are wracking our brains immediately to figure out who we are with—born as a girl then born as a boy? Our interest is piqued and we commit ourselves to the unfolding tale.
- “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this
time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
I couldn’t resist a second selection by Eugenides. In The Virgin Suicides, he packs a wallop and immediately fixes us to our chairs. This sentence is, more than anything, terribly sad. It tells us that multiple sisters in the same family—a family called Lisbon—have killed themselves. It tells us they have each done it in the same house. It informs us that these girls might not yet be adults when they are referred to as daughters in a single household. It also lets us know that the suicides have happened in a fairly short period of time because it is the same paramedics who come for each incident. And we experience the ultimate chill when Eugenides ticks off the methods by which the sisters have ended their lives—knives, gas, ropes. These words are coldly disturbing and, completely unsettled, we turn the page to find out what they mean.
- “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.”
To wrap it up, I turn to a series of sentences in the opening paragraph of All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, in which he, in this vivid evocation of flying papers, plunges us into a world of imminent danger. Something is coming and it is something to be feared. Something from which inhabitants of the town are advised to immediately flee. We are alarmed and we are captivated. The writer has us in the palm of his hand and we surrender. We will not flee. We will nestle in our comfortable chairs and flip the pages to see what comes next out of the sky. And, best of all, what comes next out of the minds of writers to tantalize, captivate, educate, and engross us with the exquisite magic of words on a page.
Deborah Goodrich Royce
Deborah Goodrich Royce writes psychological thrillers that probe questions of identity: who are we, what do we reveal, and—far most interestingly—what do we conceal? After a career in film and television (she played Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane on the soap opera, All My Children), and a stint at Miramax Films as their story editor (snagging the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring version of Jane Austen’s Emma), Deborah turned her attention to writing. Her first novel, Finding Mrs. Ford, (called “juicy and suspenseful” by People Magazine) debuted in 2019. Her newest book, Ruby Falls (described as “taut and propulsive” by Kirkus Reviews) was published on May 4, 2021. A fan of a great opening sentence, Deborah tries mightily to kick off her books with a bang. More information can be found on her website: https://deborahgoodrichroyce.com