Just how do great authors begin their immortal novels? How do their opening lines become so celebrated? What is it that aspiring novelists like me should learn in order to seduce readers? As always, one must turn to the New Yorker magazine – the Bible of budding English-language writers – for guidance. This blogger discovered whole new tricks of "opening lines" perfected by the magazine in its long 82-year history. But confessions first – it is not my discovery. I was tipped by an American friend!
Perhaps a careful New Yorker reader is already aware of certain "New-Yorkerish" opening keywords popular among the magazine writers: "One night…"; "In the fall of 2001…"; "During the cold evening of…"; "In the seventeen-seventies…"; "After three decades of exile…"; "In 1947…"; "Recently…"; "In the summer of 1956…"; "Following the day after May 9, 2003…"; "In the cool, sunny day of…"
Here are opening phrases quoted from the published articles archived in the magazine's website:
Dept. of Popular Culture
Banksy Was Here; by Lauren Collins
May 14, 2007
"Around 1993, Banksy's graffiti began appearing on trains and walls around Bristol …"
Dept. of Archeology
Fragmentary Knowledge; by John Seabrook
May 14, 2007
"In October, 2005, a truck pulled up outside the National Archeological Museum in Athens …"
Annals of Communications
Critical Mass; by Ken Auletta
May 14, 2007
"On a blustery, overcast day early this year, P.R. representatives from Sprint and Samsung stopped by the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal…"
The Conciliator; by Larissa MacFarquhar
May 7, 2007
"Begin in farm country, late last summer, no particular day."
A Critic at Large
In the Territory; by Hilton Als
May 7, 2007
"November 29, 1967, a tart, sunny day in Plainfield, Massachusetts, some thirty miles north of Smith College, in the Berkshires…"
Books Briefly Noted
The Last Mughal
May 14, 2007
"In 1857, after a number of high-caste Hindu sepoys rose up against their colonial masters…"
Letter from London
The David Kelly Affair; by John Cassidy
December 8, 2003
"Shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, July 17, 2003, David Kelly, a fifty-nine-year-old scientist employed by the British government, walked out of his house…"
Hell Week; by David Remnick
November 7, 2005
"Last Monday, at the very start of George W. Bush's week of misery, Thomas M. DeFrank, the Washington bureau chief of the Daily News, published a story…"
Letter from Europe
Round One; by Jane Kramer
April 23, 2007
"Late one night toward the end of March, after a day spent listening to too many Frenchmen talk politics, I called room service…"
The Financial Page
It's the Workforce, Stupid! by James Surowiecki
April 30, 2007
"In the nineteen-nineties, with U.S. corporations in the midst of what the Times called "the downsizing of America," a new term appeared…"
If only The New Yorker had started earlier it could have helped the 19th century authors too. Of course, the celebrated opening lines would have been a little different. For instance:
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
"Not long ago, one cold day in the fall, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times… "
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
"During the flushed spring of an English countryside, it was a universally acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
"One weekend evening in a bland, uptight St. Petersburg drawing room, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and favorite of the Empress Marya Fedorovna conceded that Genoa and Lucca had become family estates of the Bonaparte's."
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
"On the evening after the rainiest summer day, I returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with."
Jane Austen, Emma
"Born in a winter night, around twenty-one years ago, Emma Woodhouse – handsome, clever, and rich – grew up in the world with very little to distress or vex her."
But such tricks are not New Yorker copyrights. Many great writers remain guilty of fine-weather & day-time tricks. Sample these authentic opening lines:
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge."
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."
George Orwell, 1984
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
So whether it is a rainy summer afternoon of 2007 or a crispy evening in the winters of 1938, you can easily write that wow! first line of your debut novel. When I shared these startling discoveries with Gaurav, a fellow book-lover, he pointed out that the dates-day introduction provides immediacy to the piece. "It makes the reader feel close to the scene as if she is being made part of a secret," he said. But isn't it clichéd? Doesn't it make the writing formulaic? "But then standards to judge writing too have become formulaic," Gaurav said.