How to Start a Story

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

~ C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Any writer worth her ink and paper knows the importance of starting a story with a really good line. An interesting or clever first line grabs the reader’s attention right away. First impressions are important, you know!

The quote above from C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite opening lines of any story. It’s witty and succinct, and also tells us several important things right away while setting up one or two intriguing questions:

  1. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a character in this story.
  2. He is also a boy.
  3. His name is terrible.
  4. He almost deserves his name—why?
  5. The lousy name suggests that his parents, who (presumably) named him, are probably unusual in some way or simply have poor taste. (Spoiler: It’s a bit of both.) What is their deal?

In just thirteen words, the author has begun to set the stage for the story, and told a joke into the bargain. That, dear reader, is how it is done.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite opening lines in literature.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I have yet to read The Metamorphosis by Kafka—it’s on my reading list, which continues to grow at an alarming rate—but this line is fantastic. I mean, after reading this line, I really want to find out what happens next.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

As many of my friends know only too well, I have read only one book by Jane Austen, and hated it with the burning passion of ten thousand suns. Mark Twain put it well: “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” However, as much as I disliked Pride and Prejudice, I have to admit that it has one heck of a first line. It wryly pokes fun at the expectations of high society with its “truth universally acknowledged,” and also hints at the plot of the novel.

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

All right, I admit it: I love this one mostly for sentimental reasons. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great opening line. What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground? The following paragraphs elaborate with surprising information: the hobbit lives not in “a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole,” but in a neat, comfortable, luxurious home built inside a hill. This line is an intriguing set-up to a few really engaging paragraphs… assuming the reader doesn’t mind starting the story at a leisurely pace.

What is your favorite opening line in literature? Let us know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Story

  1. Some of my favorite opening lines are from:
    “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling – “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

    “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton – “The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge.”

    “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens – “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”

    “That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis – “‘Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,’ said Jane Studdock to herself, ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.'”

    Sorry for being so incredibly long.

    • Excellent opening lines, all. 🙂 They all begin great books, too. I really need to reread Orthodoxy… Chesterton is one of my favorite authors.

      There is no such thing as an overlong blog comment. No need to apologize!

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