Tuesday, July 5, 2016

5 The Art of the First Page: 8 Classic Openings and Why They’re Great

Today we are delighted to have author Rob Vlock, whose SVEN CARTER series is set to debut with Simon & Schuster / Aladdin in the fall of 2017, (and 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop Mentor!) share 8 classic opening and why they're great!

Your first page. It’s arguably the most important page in your entire book.

• When you’re querying, it can make the difference between a full request and a rejection letter.
• When you’re on submission, it can make the difference between an offer and a pass.
• When you’re on a bookstore shelf, it can make the difference between a sale and a “see-ya!”

It’s no wonder that for as long as writers have been writing, they’ve agonized over the openings of their books. Just like you do today. (Don’t deny it. If writing your opening is easy, you’re not doing it right.)

Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison — they all fretted and fussed over their openings. And they did it without the benefit of a 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop. Crazy, right? Yet, they still did pretty well for themselves.

So let’s take a look at eight of my personal all-time favorite openings in literature and why they work so well. And before you say it, yes, this is a highly subjective list. And, yes, some of your favorite openings in literature are conspicuously absent. My sincerest apologies for that. But for writers just starting out — especially those who are seeking representation — you can learn a lot from these eight selections.

1) The Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka
How it starts: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Why it’s great: It’s the ultimate in no-nonsense openings. Twenty words into the book, you already know exactly what the thrust of the narrative is going to be. A huge bonus here is that those twenty words twist in such an unexpected direction. Typically, I’d say starting a book with someone waking up is a big no-no. But when they wake up as a giant insect? You’ve hooked me for the duration.

2) Paradise — Toni Morrison
How it starts: They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here.

Why it’s great: This opening is so horrifying that it opens a pit in my stomach every time I read it. Like the scene of an accident you just can’t look away from, the opening lines of Paradise grab you and force you to keep reading — no matter how much you want to look away.

3) 100 Years of Solitude — Gabriel García Márquez
How it starts: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Why it’s great: The two biggest reasons I love this opening: 1) It instantly thrusts you into a life-and-death situation, so you immediately know what kind of stakes we’re dealing with. 2) It forces you to ask so many questions: Why is Colonel Buendía in front of a firing squad? What’s the significance of his memory of being taken to discover ice? What the heck does “discover ice” mean, anyway? And what is so important about that memory that it’s the one thing intruding into his thoughts in the last moments of his life? I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I’m not reading on to get my answers.

4) I, Claudius — Robert Graves
How it starts: I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life.

Why it’s great: Claudius, the most powerful man in the world, is simultaneously one of the biggest schlubs you’ll ever meet. From the first page, you see the this duality and the tension that arises from it. Claudius’s voice and characterization shine through from the opening line, making him someone you want to learn more about.

5) Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison
How it starts: I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Why it’s great: A cousin to The Metamorphosis in spirit, this opening just screams alienation. From the first sentence, Ellison projects a sense of loneliness and isolation from a narrator who is forced perpetually to exist at the margins of white-dominated society.

6) Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
How it starts: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Why it’s great: The irony in these lines is so sharp and delicious that it could shear off an eyebrow. You can almost hear the narrator’s arch, clipped British tone from the moment you start reading.

7) Charlotte’s Web — E.B. White
How it starts: "Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Why it’s great: Fern’s simple question says it all. You know instinctively that there can be no happy answer. In just six words, White manages to fill readers with the kind of suspense that Hitchcock would envy.

8) Moby Dick — Herman Melville
How it starts: Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Why it’s great: Even though I’ve probably read Moby Dick more than ten times over the years, this opening never fails to delight and amaze me. It’s humorous yet dark. It presents a narrator who’s likeable, human and engaging. And it establishes life-and-death stakes rights away. It’s suicide or the sea. Or, if you choose to read it another way, it’s suicide by sea.
One final thought: Even a great opening isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But rest assured, a poorly written opening will appeal to precisely no one! So keep reading. Keep writing. And keep revising. Then, when you think you’re done revising, revise again.

Have your own favorite openings? Be sure to share them in the comments. And happy writing!

Rob writes fun, funny, fast-paced kids’ books that are perfect for reluctant readers. And when he’s not writing, you can usually find him somewhere in the greater Boston area trying to make his trumpet sound like something other than a dying goose. It’s a work in progress.


  1. This has been my favorite first line since the 6th grade:

    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

  2. This has been my favorite first line since the 6th grade:

    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

  3. "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

    ...from the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis packs SO MUCH information about Eustace into that line!

  4. No favorite to share at the moment. Just appreciation for this analysis!

  5. These are great lines! I have lots of faves, but for amusing shock value, I like Maggie Stiefvater's LAMENT:

    "You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said from the front seat. "You always are."


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