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Inspiring Novel Openings

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Often, the thing that inspires me to write a book is the most obvious of things you could imagine:

Other books.

Writers inspire me—as you’ll see, because I’ve invited some of them to write guest blogs about their own inspirations this month…

…and the novels these writers write inspire me most of all.

Sometimes, in the most gut-wrenching moments of writing a draft (it could be a first draft or a second draft or a fourteenth draft… there are torturous moments for me in every phase of a novel), when I need a breath of fresh air and to remind myself why I’m doing this, I reread the first pages of books I love. I slip out of my writer skin and simply become a reader again—before books were the complex oh-so-pretty monsters that simultaneously flutter and tear apart my heart.

I dip my fingers into a few books—savor their first pages, seeing how the author started his or her story and remembering how it took off from there… and I feel better.

In fact, often after doing this, I feel inspired.

I thought I’d try a little of that today, and share some of the openings that have inspired me. And hooked me, as any good opening should do.

I’ve chosen only the first paragraphs—and sometimes the first paragraphs are only a single line. You don’t need that many words to hook you in a story…

So I looked around the bookshelves in my bedroom and plucked some books to seek out some inspiring openings. I found quite a few (which speaks to how many books are piled in precarious stacks on the nonworking fireplace mantel in my bedroom), but also it speaks to how many different ways there are to grab your reader on page 1. So many stories, and so many directions they could go! I tell you, that inspires me.

Here are some openings that hook me…


An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax.


The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. The Scriptura Sancta lies discarded, pages crumpled, on my bed. Bruises mark my knees from kneeling on the tiles, and the Godstone in my navel throbs. I have been praying—no, begging—that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.


Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson

We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t even look at her. The fights came when I thought she broke a promise. She said there’d be an Indian reservation. She said that we’d see buffalo in Texas. My mother said a lot of things. We were driving from Bay City, Wisconsin, to California, so I could be a child star while I was still a child.


You by Charles Benoit

You’re surprised at all the blood.


The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.


Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

Imagine four years. Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—every day, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.


That Night by Alice McDermott

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad—the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their lights summer clothes—startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.


If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.


Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.


The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff

Once, my mother told a whole host of angels that she’d rather die than go back to a man she didn’t love.


Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Right before my twelfth birthday, my dad, Jules, and I moved into a two-room apartment in a building that we called the Ostrich Hotel. It was the first time I could remember taking a taxicab anywhere. It let us off in the alley behind the building, where all the walls had pretty graffiti painted on them. There was a cartoon cow with a sad look on its face and a girl with an oxygen mask holding a tiny baby in her arms.


Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

I have three simple wishes. They’re really not too much to ask.


Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

After the accident, I became less visible. I don’t mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.


Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn’t even realize where they were living. They didn’t care that Marilyn’s prints were practically in their backyard at Graumann’s; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer’s Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor’s; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers. There was no one who cared. Until Dirk.


Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Some memories are slippery.


Paper Towns by John Green

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.


Going Bovine by Libba Bray

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.


What are some novel openings that inspire you… a first line, a first paragraph? Share one with me—and then let’s go write our own awesome first lines!

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24 thoughts on “Inspiring Novel Openings

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
    “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz:
    “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everyone’s always going on about–he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.

    And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him).

    He was seven then.”

    Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata:
    “Five swivel chairs were ranged along the other side of the observation car of the Kyoto express. Oki Toshio noticed that the one on the end was quietly revolving with the movement of the train. He could not take his eyes from it. The low armchairs on his side of the car did not swivel.”

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami:
    “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”

    (can you tell I collect opening paragraphs of novels I love?)

  2. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
    “In the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident.”

    I’m also quite fond of the opening to An Invisible Sign of My Own :-)

  3. The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
    “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.”

    It’s also the last line.

  4. EEP. I’m so startled to find Lola in here! Wow, THANK YOU. It’s such an honor! Weetzie Bat’s first page is also one of my favorites. (And it’s my *very* favorite book.) And now I HAVE to read The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Zoinks.

    I love that ChristineZ added The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, because I adore that one, too.

    My contributions are Nabokov’s Lolita, because the language has the most beautiful musicality:

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    And M.T. Anderson’s Feed:

    “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

    (Pretty much any M.T. Anderson novel will have a brilliant opening.)

  5. Okay, I have to share one more from M.T. Anderson, because, seriously. The opening of The Game of Sunken Places:

    “The woods were silent, other than the screaming. It was a summer’s night. Nothing in the forest moved. Somewhere in the darkness, things wailed hoarsely. There were miles of empty pathway rambling past old logging trails and older ruins. There were aisles of trees, motionless. The blind river ran through the shadows. And crouched, listening in the bracken, his breath fast and frightened, was a real estate developer.”

  6. Scarlet, the Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (I read this book at 12, right after seeing the movie and was forever changed):

    “This will be over soon, and then I can go home to Tara.”

    Tithe, a Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black:

    “Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle. She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was – see if she would swallow a butt whole.”

    Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice:

    “Least here. You know who I am? Then skip the next few paragraphs. For those whom I have not met before, I want this to be love at first sight.”

    Fallen by Lauren Kate:

    “Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape. The look in them was feline, half determined and half tentative. All trouble. Yes, they were just right, those eyes.”

  7. “There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

    Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

  8. You might’ve heard this one already…

    “Ruby said I’d never drown – not in deep ocean, not by shipwreck, not even by falling drunk into someone’s bottomless backyard pool. She said she’d seen me hold my breath underwater for minutes at a time, but to hear her tell it you’d think she meant days. Long enough to live down there if needed, to skim the seafloor collecting shells and shiny soda caps, looking up every so often for the rescue lights, even if they took forever to come.

    It sounded impossible, something no one would believe if anyone other than Ruby were the one to tell it. But Ruby was right: The body found that wouldn’t be, couldn’t be mine.”
    :) Thank you for inspiring.
    -Alexandra
    twitter: @salseraBeauty

  9. My favorite <3 "The Sky is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson –

    "Gram is worried about me. It's not just because my sister Bailey just died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn't contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I can think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her house-plants has spots."

    And one more… "Delirium" by Lauren Oliver –

    "It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure."

    I mean, if THAT's not inspiration, I don't know what is! ;)

    Great post!
    -Alexandra
    Twitter: @salseraBeauty

  10. Great to read these. Not sure if any of you read Mona Simpson’s piece on her brother, Steve Jobs in the Times. It was freakin’ moving. I had not known they were related.

  11. “When Saffron was eight, and had at last learned to read, she hunted slowly through the color chart pinned up on the kitchen wall.”
    ~Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

    The first line from the first book of one of my favorite series of all time!! Hilary McKay never ceases to inspire and challenge me to create characters that are not only whimsical but lovable beyond words. <3

  12. These are wonderful, and you’ve now provided me with several new books to add to my TBR list.

    I’ve always loved the openings to Cracked up to Be and The Virgin Suicides. Time for a reread of both? Perhaps.

  13. I love these, very inspiring. My favourite beginning I’ve read recently is

    “It was the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”
    The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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  15. Well, Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers so I have to do add some of her great openers:

    “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”
    –The Bluest Eye

    “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event took place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
    At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I love you all.”
    –Song of Solomon

    I also love the first line of Bel Canto: “When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.”

    Loved this post! Thanks for the opportunity to add more outstanding openers to my collection! :-)

  16. One of my favorites:

    If my reckoning of time is still accurate, the day on which I begin to write this journal marks the one-year anniversary of my incarceration aboard the good ship Chrysalis, a high-altitude zeppelin designed by that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors, Prospero Taligent. It has also been a year since I last opened my mouth to speak. To anyone. Especially my captor. I refuse to speak to my captor precisely because it is the one thing that she desires, and my silence is the only form of protest that remains to me.

    The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

  17. What fun to read these! A few more here.

    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys:
    They say when trouble comes, close ranks. And so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

    Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
    His two girls are curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground, in the smallest space possible.

    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
    May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenida was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

  18. loved every single one of these, but paper towns left a smile on my face. such a good book and an amazing opener too!

  19. “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

    After that I liked jazz music.

    Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

    I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”

    –Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

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