For whatever reason, “It was a dark and stormy night.”, the opening words written by Edward Bulwer-Litton, an English 19th Century author, have become the standard and accepted phrase to denigrate a story. It’s even odder when you know that Bulwer-Litton was considered to be an outstanding writer by his contemporaries. Still, to this day, his choice of opening words is universally used to indicate that a writer’s work is substandard or that the writer is a hack.
Whether it’s a novel, short story, magazine article, news story or column, most people decide if they will continue reading based on the first few opening words. That is one reason why writers of all disciplines do their best to write words that will “grab” the reader’s attention right at the beginning.
Over at The Travelers Notebook, Joshua Johnson has posted his choices for 15 Immortal Opening Lines from novels. If you’re even moderately well-read, you’ll recognize most of his choices. That would not be surprising since it would seem logical that widely-read books would possess memorable opening lines (see paragraph above).
Of his choices, I would say my favorite is “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” from George Orwell’s 1984. I can still remember the slight “What?” I felt the first time I read those words at the age of 11.
My favorite, outside of his choices (and frankly I was surprised that it wasn’t included; not because it’s one of my favorites but because it is so well-known by the majority of people, even those who do not read a great deal), is the opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Everyone knows the first twelve words:
“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.”
What opening words of a novel grabbed your attention?
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