The importance of a great opening sentence

The words which have the most importance, which must have the most impact, and can be the most difficult to write, are the words which form the opening sentence of the book you are either writing or reading. I spend days and sometimes weeks before beginning to write, tossing words around in my head like some sort of mixed salad entree, hoping they will fall perfectly on the page, pleasing the eye and tempting the reader to sample more of the story.

Is it best to begin with a statement, or a question? Should the sentence be an enigma or the beginning of a mystery? Perhaps it should set the scene, or the geography of the story, or introduce at least one of the characters.

The memoir I finished writing, the one which is now sitting in a publisher’s office, hopefully about to be read by the said publisher, begins like this “I’ve had time to think about it and you really did choose an awkward time to die.” I’m fond of the line, I can only hope a publisher somewhere will also be fond of it.

But there are so many great opening sentences out there in the world of words and books and literature, some of my favourites are:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin.

“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.” Paul Auster, City of Glass.

Each of the sentences above says just enough to intrigue the reader, drawing them onto the edge of the story and enticing them to the end of the first page, the second, the third and onward until the end of the tale. I wonder how long each of the authors above took to write those sentences? I wonder if they slaved over them as I do, or whether the words simply tumbled off the end of their pen, or tapped onto the page inserted in their typewriter. I wonder how long it will take me to write the opening sentence of the novel I am planning.

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