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!
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.
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.
Opener: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
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.
Opener: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
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.
Opener: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
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.
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!
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.”
Author: William Gibson
Creative Thought Process: Methinks I shall write the greatest opening line ever. Donesies.
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.”
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…
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.
Opener: “Call me Ishmael.”
Author: Herman Melville
Creative Thought Process: Well, you should probably include at least one short sentence.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Opener: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
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.
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…
Opener: “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Creative Thought Process: Start with some creepy character building. Sick? Check. Spiteful? Check. Unattractive? Check. TMI? Double check.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
Author: James Joyce
Creative Thought Process: What haven’t you tried yet ah yes baby talk that will be new.
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.
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.
Opener: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.”
Author: Irvine Welsh
Creative Thought Process: If readin aboot heroin junkies disnae make ya sweat, readin throo mah brogue will.