It’s often said that the hardest bit of fiction writing is the middle – as that is usually the bulk of the thing – but getting that amazing opening you know your story deserves and nailing that ending that will leave your readers reeling can often be even more stressful. In my experience, the first and last lines of your story either come to you straight away or you spend ages trying out different ones until you find the diamond in the rough (go one, have a guess as to which one happens more often).
When I’m stuck for a great opening or closing line, I find it helps to think about my favourite ones from literature for inspiration. Some of which, in case you hadn’t guessed from the title, I’m going to talk about today.
Let’s start, as is tradition, with the opening lines.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The Graveyard Book is a wonderful all-ages novel, and one that really gets off to a perfect start with this cracker of an opening line. It’s simply the perfect template of how to start a book; a short sentence which packs in menace, mystery and intrique. There’s no way you can read that setence and then not read on.
It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
One of the most famous opening lines of the 20th century, Orwell’s seminal dystopian novel (still the greatest) begins with this deceptively simple first line. All seems well with this world we are about to enter into until unlucky number ‘thirteen’ appears. At once, we know this is a different world from our own and the use of that specific number immediately conjures up negatives images, setting up the tone for the rest of the novel.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
The Hobbit‘s enchantingly simple opening line always inspires me, largely due to its origins. One day, Tolkien was marking some school papers when he had a lightbulb moment and wrote this simple line down – spool forward a few years and he had created one of the most popular storyteling worlds around it. It’s always nice to remember that even the great stories started just the same as any other; popping out of nowhere from a bored writer’s head.
To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.
A very personal favourite this one. For years now I’ve had a deep-seated love for the heroics and heavy fog of the Holmesian canon of Conan Doyle. Though I had read the first two novels appearances of the great detective I was yet to catch the bug – but this all changed upon reading the first short story collection of Sherlock’s exploits. ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ is one of the very best Holmes stories and it begins with a tantalising of opening lines – surely the cold and logical Holmes has not fallen for a woman? From there on in, I was hooked.
Marley was dead, to begin with.
Almost every aspect of A Christmas Carol (it’s compulsory to read this or Narnia every yuletide) has passed into the public consciousness – including this atmospheric teaser of an opening line. You can almost hear Dickens himself laughing maniacally as you read it. No, wait, hang on – is that an ethereal bellringing I hear?
And now let’s do something sacriligious and skip right to the closing lines.
I took her hand and… I saw no shadow of another parting from her.
He might go on a bit in the middle but it has to be said Dickens knew how to start and end a novel. Here, after we’ve followed the ups and (mainly) downs of Pip’s tormented romance with Estella, Dickens gives us just what we want by delivering an ending which suggests a hopeful future for the pair but intelligently does not tie everything up in a bow. A great improvement on Dickens original dour ending
Lastly, she pictured… herself a grown woman; and how she would keep… the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would… find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child‑life, and the happy summer days.
Yes, that’s quite the sentence (hey, it is from 1865) but it also gets to the heart of the endless appeal of Alice and other such children’s books. You fall for a fantasy world like Wonderland as a child, then grow up to tell it to your children who in turn tell it to their children… A beautiful summation of the wonderland of children’s literature.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
An exquisitely lyrically line this, and one which is so evocative of the rest of the story, which sees Gatsby try to acheive something more than his past. Probably my favourite book ending – in terms of pure skill and technique I don’t think it can be beaten.
No question now what has happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Yes, Orwell joins Dickens for having an opening and closing line of theirs on this list. While Dickens is best for character and drama, Orwell is one of my favourite writers for prose style, he has a crisp way of writing which gives each sentence a real punch – and none more so than this one.
The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.
I really can’t go without mentioning one of the most famous book endings this century. Though Rowling originally planned to end the beloved Potter saga with the word ‘scar’, this was probably the only ending that could properly appease her die-hard fans (which I very much was one growing up). Much like Dickens’ Great Expectations, after all those books we really just wanted to know Voldemort was dead and Harry would have a happy life. Sometimes the simple endings are the best.
Happy World Book Night, everyone!