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Perfect Beginnings

Beginning-your-book1There is no doubt that the first sentence of a novel is important; it’s the hook that draws the reader in. And, when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, this opening line requires even more care: These words become the first steps a reader takes in your alternate reality, dimension, planet or timeline. Get it right and your reader will hang around and explore, mess it up and you will leave said reader confused or rolling their eyes – resulting in them quickly putting your book back down among the growing sea of genre titles.

Although it is such a small part of a novel, those 5-20 words often have a profound impact on us. When an author truly nails it a feeling of intrigue washes over you in such a way that it would be impossible not to continue reading. Members of the Fantasy-Faction Forum recently took a bit of time to reflect on our favourite openings and offer up a round of applause to our favourite opening sentence. I couldn’t even guess the combined number of books we’ve read as a community – oh…go on then; it’d be in the thousands, or tens of thousands more likely – so if one makes this list it should reveal the powerful effect it had on the reader who suggested it.

My hope is that this post appeals to a number of different people: well-read readers who are up for playing a guessing game as to who wrote the sentences shown below, readers who have space on their ‘to be read list’ and can be tempted into picking up one of the titles these opening lines belong to, and writers who are either studying the craft or looking for some inspiration.

Ash fell from the sky.

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) by Brandon Sanderson

“I was there,” he would say afterwards, until afterwards became a time quite devoid of understanding. “I was there, the day Horus slew the Emperor.”

Horus Rising (The Horus Heresy #1) by Dan Abnett

The sunrise was the colour of bad blood.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Far out, in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, #1) by Douglas Adams

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…

The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett

As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1) by Hannu Rajaniemi

Contrary to whatever stories and songs there may be about the subject, there are only a handful of respectable things a man can do after he picks up a sword.

Tome of the Undergates (Aeons’ Gate, #1) by Sam Sykes

“It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there.”

The Magician’s Guild (Black Magician, #1) by Trudi Canavan

Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1) by Brandon Sanderson

They’d strung up the king with razorwire in the square across the river.

Honour Guard (Gaunt’s Ghosts #4) by Dan Abnett

On the far western shore of a northern continent, there was once a harbour city called Seattle.

Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm

The place stank. A queer mingled stench that inly ice cabins of the Antarctic know, compounded of reeking human sweat and the heavy fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe.

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (Pine Cove #3) by Christopher Moore

One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten.

The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, #1) by R. Scott Bakker

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you have two options.

The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1) by Richard K. Morgan

The magic was breaking free again.

Songs of the Earth (The Wild Hunt, #1) by Elspeth Cooper

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood and she lived all alone.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them.

The Black Company (The Chronicle of the Black Company, #1) by Glen Cook

I’m in a window seat at Donut Universe eating heart-crippling lumps of deep-fried dough with the Devil.

Kill City Blues (Sandman Slim #5) by Richard Kadrey

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

Hogfather (Discworld, #20) by Terry Pratchett

She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the centre of the walk like a mechanical derelict.

Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson

They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

Below, toward the great Tyber Mountains, they came. Some in pairs, some alone. Fierce dragonhelms hid all but the eyes; eyes that, in most cases, burned bloodred in the coming darkness.

Firedrake (Dragonrealm, #1) by Richard A. Knaak

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles #1) by Patrick Rothfuss

The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.

Blood Rites (The Dresden Files #6) by Jim Butcher

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead.

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire #1) by Mark Lawrence

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The Gunslinger (Darktower #1) by Stephen King

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

“So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil librarians.”

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Alcatraz, #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Hier fängt die Geschichte an. (Here the story begins.)

The City of Dreaming Books (Zamonia, #4) by Walter Moers

Man is a puerile creature, easily misled by the superficial.

Tomorrow The Killing (Low Town, #2) by Daniel Polansky

The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker’s Guide, #2) by Douglas Adams

When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

As the iron war club scythed toward her head, Yukiko couldn’t help wishing she’d listened to her father.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1) by Joe Haldeman

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room. He smiled sourly. “Just imagine,” he said. “Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.”

Retribution Falls (Tales of The Ketty Jay #1) by Chris Wooding

Demandred stepped out onto the black slopes of Shayol Ghul, and the gateway, a hole in reality’s fabric, winked out of existence.

Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6) by Robert Jordan

It was her scars that made her beautiful.

Ash: A Secret History (Book of Ash, #1-4) by Mary Gentle

Snow, tenderly caught by eddying breezes, swirled and spun in to and out of bright, lustrous shapes that gleamed against the emerald-blazoned black drape of sky and sparkled there for a moment, hanging, before settling gently to the soft, green-tufted plain with all the sickly sweetness of an over-written sentence.

To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust

Nothing ever begins.

Weaveworld by Clive Barker

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

1984 by George Orwell

Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

“I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.”

Steelheart (Steelheart #1) by Brandon Sanderson

I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

When the Hidden Schools threw Tara Abernathy out, she fell a thousand feet through wisps of cloud and woke to find herself alive, broken and bleeding, beside the Crack in the World.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone

The sun hung just over the peaks, a silent, furious ember drenching the granite cliffs in a bloody red, when Kaden found the shattered carcass of the goat.

The Emperor’s Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #1) by Brian Staveley

Did we miss your favorite opening line? Let us know in the comments! 🙂

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar Pat J says:

    I think your second “The Hobbit” isn’t actually from “The Hobbit”.

    Also, there are some great first line here, but you missed one of my absolute favourites:

    “In five years the penis will be obsolete.” From Steel Beach by John Varley.

  2. Avatar T.O.Munro says:

    The only one I had read but did not guess was The Hogfather, but so many powerful openings that I hadn’t read., I wish people would stop filling my to be read list.

  3. Avatar Kingaskean says:

    Shocked no George R.R. Martin.

  4. Avatar Lee says:

    Nice Idea.
    Good first sentences are real easy to forget since you are lured into reading more imediately after.
    I’d like to add The Name of the Wind’s first sentences, taht finishes by ‘it was a silence of three parts’ and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, where a woman gets out of a store and sees her child playing ‘directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict’

  5. Avatar Richard says:

    surprising how many first sentences describe the weather…goes against the ‘classic’ advice for opening a novel from Elmore Leonard and others.

    Ps. Love the way Gaiman corrects Gibson re. The ACTUAL Colour of a dead TV channel 🙂

  6. […] weird, so long as it piques the reader’s interest. Check out some of the opening lines from the Perfect Beginnings article on […]

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