Introducing a story to a reader is a lot like dropping a pickup line on someone: do it the wrong way and they’ll wind up under the covers with a different… book. Here to show you how it’s done are the top twenty-five cold openings in Western literature. For some additional insight, we’ve included speculations as to the thought process that might have influenced each author’s writing. Enjoy!
1. Ice, Ice Ba—Whaaat?
Opener: “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.” Book: One Hundred Years of Solitude Author: Gabriel García Márquez Creative Thought Process: Before getting into that whole “ice” thing, unceremoniously mention that Buendía eventually has to stare down a firing squad. That’ll buy at least a hundred pages of curiosity.
2. A Real Page-Burner
Opener: “It was a pleasure to burn.” Book: Fahrenheit 451 Author: Ray Bradbury Creative Thought Process: Juxtapose the anarchic verb “to burn” with an alluring noun like “pleasure.” Hope a major cigarette company doesn’t steal the phrase some forty years down the road.
3. April Cowers
Opener: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Book: 1984 Author: George Orwell Creative Thought Process: To properly set the mood for a futuristic dystopia, combine the elements of springtime, coldness, an unlucky number, and bells tolling. Then, watch people fight over the feasibility of a clock that can strike thirteen.
4. Post-Partum Possession
Opener: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Book: Beloved Author: Toni Morrison Creative Thought Process: Make the subject of the sentence an obscure sequence of numbers to get the reader’s attention. In case that doesn’t work, follow up with a terrifying, baby-related metaphor.
5. F. M. L.
Opener: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Book: Metamorphosis Author: Franz Kafka Creative Thought Process: Ease the reader into Gregor Samsa’s misfortunes by describing his nightsweats about… Meh, skip to the giant cockroach.
6. Ve Believe In Nah-sing, Lebowski!
Opener: “Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Book: The Stranger Author: Albert Camus Creative Thought Process: In order to sell the whole involuntary-manslaughter thing, start by making the guy seem detached. Okay, more detached. Just a little more. PERFECT!
7. Hole-y Middle-earth, Batman!
Opener: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Book: The Hobbit Author: J.R.R. Tolkien Creative Thought Process: In the interest of thoroughness, approach the most epic alternate universe in all of literature by starting with a hole in the ground.
Opener: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Book: Neuromancer Author: William Gibson Creative Thought Process: Methinks I shall write the greatest opening line ever. Donesies.
9. Out There
Opener: “They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.” Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Author: Ken Kesey Creative Thought Process: First, open with something that conveys paranoia. Mentioning the ambiguous ol’ “they” is a good start, but driving it home will require something more specific. Hmm…
10. Fragile: Do Not Stack
Opener: “When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – ‘To Whom It May Concern’ – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.” Book: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Author: Maya Angelou Creative Thought Process: Casually inform the reader that these children might not be in the best hands. Start by Fed-Ex-ing them 1,600 miles.
11. Hi, My Name Is (WHAT?!)
12. …Goes To-gether Like a Horse and Car-riage!
Opener: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Book: Anna Karenina Author: Leo Tolstoy Creative Thought Process: Give the readers an impossibly oversimplified statement about mankind, then sit back and watch them realize that it’s actually true.
13. The Reckonin’
Opener: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Author: Mark Twain Creative Thought Process: Write a 43-chapter novel entirely in rural slang. From the perspective of a 13-year-old boy. Who’s uneducated. While you’re at it, make it the greatest novel in American history.
14. Universal Spoof
Opener: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Book: Pride and Prejudice Author: Jane Austen Creative Thought Process: Write sarcastically during an era so prudish that future generations will actually mistake you as being serious.
15. Whatever, Nevermind
Opener: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Book: The Catcher in the Rye Author: J.D. Salinger Creative Thought Process: Offhandedly trash-talk the classics, gloss over any specifics, and leave everyone wanting more. Make sure Holden, the narrator, is one hundred percent unable to repeat this technique on women.
16. Great Balls of Fire
Opener: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Book: Lolita Author: Vladimir Nabokov Creative Thought Process: Subtly allude to the fact that the love interest is only thirteen by writing her name in the diminutive, “-ita” form. Throwing the word “sin” in there probably isn’t a bad idea either.
17. Bombs Over Bag-Lady
Opener: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Book: The Crow Road Author: Iain Banks Creative Thought Process: Open with a bang. Scratch that – open with a violent human combustion. See where it takes you…
18. Old Man Liver
Opener: “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.” Book: Notes from the Underground Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky Creative Thought Process: Start with some creepy character building. Sick? Check. Spiteful? Check. Unattractive? Check. TMI? Double check.
19. Prose In Different Area Codes
Opener: “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.” Book: A Tale of Two Cities Author: Charles Dickens Creative Thought Process: It was earth, it was sky, it was sun, it was moon, it was salt, it was pepper… Um…
20. That Peaceful, Queasy Feeling
Opener: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek. ‘Damn it,’ she says, ‘something isn’t right.'” Book: Running with Scissors Author: Augusten Burroughs Creative Thought Process: Throw the reader into the body of an innocent young kid. Drop some hints that mom may be a lot of work. Buckle up; this ain’t The Brady Bunch.
21. Nowhere Man
Opener: “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-eight 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.” Book: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Author: Douglas Adams Creative Thought Process: Put the readers in their place. You know, light-eons away from anything of significance.
22. A Nicens Little Title
Opener: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” Book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Author: James Joyce Creative Thought Process: What haven’t you tried yet ah yes baby talk that will be new.
23. Road Trippin’
Opener: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Book: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Author: Hunter S. Thompson Creative Thought Process: Dropkick the readers into chaos. Right after dropping some… ahem.
24. Shark Bait Hoo-Ha-Ha!
Opener: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Book: The Old Man and the Sea Author: Ernest Hemingway Creative Thought Process: Write about an old, grizzled man’s man who takes on an entire ocean. To distract everyone from the fact that mother used to dress you as a girl.
25. Scottish Rogue
Opener: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.” Book: Trainspotting Author: Irvine Welsh Creative Thought Process: If readin aboot heroin junkies disnae make ya sweat, readin throo mah brogue will.