We all know that you need to have a great beginning to get readers hooked on your novel. However coming up with the perfect opening scene/line isn’t easy. Carrie Slager over at TheMadReviewer listed her favorite book beginnings. It got me thinking and we had a short twitter conversation about it. I said that my favorites were too long and too obscure for twitter. So I have decided to blog about them instead.
The Kalevala is a long epic poem. It is Elias Lonnrot’s attempt to record some of the oral history of Finnish people before it was corrupted by modern influences. The first translation I read was Keith Bosley’s. I had never been exposed to this kind of oral poetry before. The first time I read it, I got stuck on the introductory poem. It literally took me hours, and multiple readings, before I could go on, it was that entrancing.
“I have a good mind
take it into my head
to start off singing
To begin reciting
reeling off a tale of kin
singing a tale of kind
The words unfreeze in my mouth
and the phrases are tumbling
upon my tongue they scramble
Along my teeth they scatter.
It goes on like this for several pages. The rhythm, when you read it, is hypnotic. I love that opening.
Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
Kon Tiki is a classic true life adventure story. Attempting to prove his unconventional theory about the origins of the Polynesians, Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl sets off across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. Here is how he opens the story:
“Once in awhile you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”
He goes on to describe writing in his journal on May 7th. He is cook for the day. They found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag…
Am I hooked? Who is Torstein? How the heck did he wake up with an unknown fish in his sleeping bag? These are questions that will require me to read this book. I consider that scene to be the greatest narrative hook of all time.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien would later claim that the idea for the Hobbit came to him when he found a blank sheet of paper. He looked at it and then wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” From these words the rest of the tale sprang.
Whether true or not it makes a great story. It also makes a stunning opening line. The rest of the opening supports this first line in almost as elegant of a fashion, explaining that “not a dirty, nasty wet hole filled the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit on or to eat, it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort.”
I have no clue what a hobbit is at this point but I know they live in holes and they like comfort. But what is most important is that I want to know more. I am intrigued about what this creature is, what they look like and both how and why they live in holes.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
It takes a true master to know when, and how, to break the rules. There is no doubt that Kurt Vonnegut is a master storyteller and one of the great novelist of this century. He is most famous for his casual disregard for suspense, informing his writing students to “give the readers enough information to finish the novel themselves, if the cockroaches were to eat the final pages.” Breakfast of Champions is a novel that breaks almost all the rules of novel writing. He starts by throwing out every rule for opening lines and narrative hooks and starts off with one word.
Few writers have the credibility to simply tell us, “shut up and read on. I have written something important here.” Vonnegut is probably the only one in our time, so I wouldn’t recommend other writers using this device.
Vonnegut knows how to start a novel. This list would not be complete without a nod towards one of his other great works, Cat’s Cradle. It begins with the line “Everything in this book is a lie.”
A full discussion of opening lines could easily stretch several pages and numerous novels. But these are the ones that leap to mind for me. What about you? Which opening lines or scenes stand out even years later?