Saturday, May 2, 2015

The success of a book is not measured by the length of its opening sentence

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities begins, “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 - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (120 words)

Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care begins, “You know more than you think you do.” (8 words)

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick begins, “Call me Ishmael.” (3 words)

My favorite opening sentence is the one in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violet Bear It Away. It is a happy medium of 88 words that practically drag the reader into the story and dare him or her not to read more: “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”

Some people have called O’Connor’s writing grotesque. She famously said: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”


  1. I think the opening of a book is vitally important, without that hook, they've lost a good many readers at the get go. My favourite is, and I think always will be -

    "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. " - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

    First heard on the radio when I was a child, I know it off by heart, and went on to read the whole series after the radio series was published, then I read all his other books, and highly recommend his 'Dirk Gently' detective novels.

    Great post rhymes *beams*.

  2. "One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary."
    - Thomas Pynchon "The Crying of Lot 49"

  3. Interesting 88 words there Ishmael. Interesting.

  4. Drat you. I really, really don't need anything to add to my unread pile. And you just have.

  5. I've just read those opening lines with a certain fascination. Indeed, an opening sentence is vital is capturing the reader's attention.

    Then again, an opening run-on sentence with an abundance of the conjunction word, "and" can make you realise you've been holding your breath and you begin to turn blue by the end of the sentence and thus, for no apparent reason, this sentence will come to an abrupt end!

    Nice one, my illustrious friend.


  6. Thanks for commenting, everyone.

    All Consuming, I read all of Douglas Adams I could get my hands on back in the day, including all five books in his trilogy. Now that I am old I get him confused with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons.

    Yorkshire Pudding, I know who Thomas Pynchon is, but I don't think I have ever read anything by him. The opening sentence that you quoted piques my interest, though!

    Carol in Cairns, I didn't mean for you to call me Ishmael, LOL! That was the title of a book! But you knew that.

    Elephant's Child, my work here is done.

    klahanie (Gary), I always enjoy hearing from you. I quite agree that the opening sentence is vital in capturing the reader's attention!