I have great intentions to write but am often plagued by writer’s block. If you’re like me, it’s easier to begin writing if I can read a model of great writing. My advice: look to your favorite books and classic literature to help you on your path to successful writing.
Before listing some famous novel starters, here are some tips on attention grabbers, and later, I’ll analyze some effective story beginnings from J.R.R. Tolkien and Mitch Albom and explain why they work.
Keep your readers hooked
First impressions are very important, and people have the attention spans of goldfish (about three seconds). Much like an interview, your audience will make first impressions–impress your readers or lose them.
Introduce some mystery that leaves your audience wanting to know more.
- Think of movie trailers. What mystery is alluded to without giving away too much of the plot? Foreshadow what is to come.
- Introduce something unnatural or out of the ordinary. Juxtapose or compare and contrast the ordinary with the absurd.
- Immerse the reader in the story’s conflict so they will need to know what happens.
- Take the audience back to the past using flashback.
- End the first chapter with a cliffhanger.
- Paint an excellent picture by using imagery (sensory details) to transport the reader into your story.
Famous first lines
Below is a list of story openers from classic literature, but if you are craving more check out “The 10 absolute best openings to young adult books” by Jen Lamoureux or “The Top 10 Best Opening Lines of Novels” by Meredith Borders. Still not satisfied, and you are looking for a unique gift? Amazon may have what you’re looking for with their Great First Lines of Literature Mug. My father gave this to me for Christmas, and I am inspired whenever I use it.
A few of my favorites
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez)
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” (Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury)
- “Marley was dead to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol, Dickens)
- “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” (Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky)
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
- “A screaming comes across the sky.” (Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon)
- “You better not never tell nobody but God.” (The Color Purple, Walker)
- “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” (The Metamorphosis, Kafka)
- “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Murphy, Samuel Beckett)
- ” It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” (City of Glass, Auster)
The absurd midst the ordinary (a closer look at J.R.R. Tolkien)
I mentioned earlier that introducing a bit of mystery in your story opening will leave your readers craving more. Let’s look more in depth at an example. Let’s use J.R.R. Tolkien’s first lines in the Fellowship of the Ring:
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for face, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as a fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone would possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!'”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s original first page for Lord of the Rings, 1937 pic.twitter.com/JJrW1KzQno
— History In Pictures (@HistoryInPics) August 3, 2014
Tolkien leads into the story by contrasting Bilbo’s fortune and unchanging physical appearance to Hobbiton’s ordinary, natural setting and its populace’s opinions. Other hobbits don’t welcome change and believe Bilbo’s unusual prosperity and abnormal aging will bring him ruin. The reader questions what Bilbo must have done to be so different and is left with questions they need to find answers to. Will Bilbo’s unusual riches and absurd aging doom him?
Foreshadowing a main character’s demise (a closer look at Mitch Albom)
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom is one of my favorite books. I picked it up at a garage sale and have not been disappointed in my purchase. The movie rendition is amazing as well. Albom does a great job of setting up the main character’s impending doom.
This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.
The last hour of Eddie’s life was spent, like most of the others, at Ruby Pier, an amusement park by a great gray ocean. The park had the usual attractions, a boardwalk, a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars, a taffy stand, and an arcade where you could shoot streams of water into a clown’s mouth. It also had a big new ride called Freddy’s Free Fall, and this would be where Eddie would be killed, in an accident that would make newspapers around the state.”
When I first started the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked how Albom started the novel. It was very straight forward, and I didn’t know if telling me that Eddie would die impressed me. I was skeptical, but I kept reading. I needed to know what happened to Eddie. No spoilers here, folks, but Albom does a great job of keeping the suspense intact and making you wanting more.
With all writing, whether it’s a research paper or a creative writing piece, your readers will be invested in your writing if you are. Be excited about what you’re writing about, and your enthusiasm will shine through. If you feel your story is boring, spice it up. Look up writing tutorials, analyze successful writing, and read, read, read!
Now go start your story!