Opinion: The Importance of the Opening Sentence

For each book I love, I record the opening sentence, as you will see in the reviews on this blog. When I read it back, months, even years later, sometimes that’s all it takes to evoke the whole feel of the story. The author’s signature style can come through in just those few words and immediately pitch me back into the world of the book.

This is why I read it before committing to my next book, I like to see if that is enough to pull me in. 9/10 times it is – but if I need a little more, I will allow myself the first paragraph to plant the seed of the story. If I like what I see, the book is good to go.

For fear of tipping into hyperbolic territory, I will ALWAYS remember reading one of my favourite opening sentences. I was in the library and recognised the title, as a friend had recommended it, so I opened it up, read the first sentence and felt the excitement rising. There is nothing like that feeling of anticipation when you are given the glimpse of a wonderful story and the only thing in the world you want to do is sit down, undisturbed for hours and devour the whole thing…

‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.’  The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Yep, with that one sentence, I was hooked and, thankfully, the rest of the book didn’t disappoint, more thoughts about that here.

I had a particularly enjoyable moment recently when I opened The Wolf Wilder (read my review here) and found it began with perhaps the most famous sentence starter in storytelling:

‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there lived a dark and stormy girl.’

For the nostalgia, for the charm, for the overt reference to fairytales, I wanted to read this based on that opening sentence alone.

The need to read the opening sentence before committing is also the reason I will never be able to fully get on board with audiobooks. Although I do listen to them (when I’m out walking) and feel they have a place in busy lives, they just don’t hold the same magic for me as actually holding a book in your hands and turning each page. Sometimes, if I’ve enjoyed the audiobook, all I want to do is get hold of the physical copy and read it again, mainly so that I can see that opening sentence written down in all its glory.

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