12 lessons from great opening lines in literature

We all know we’re supposed to hook readers with the lede. How, though, do great writers inspire us?

When cranking out a story or white paper, we all know we should write a beginning that hooks people to read on.

This isn’t true only of communicators and writers. Great literature offers first lines or paragraphs that inspire and provoke readers and offer unforgettable lessons for writers.

Because communicators are a highly literate cohort, I nudged a few with emails and posted a query on the journalists’ source-seeking platform Help a Reporter Out. What, I asked, are the communications and writing lessons from first lines of famous novels and plays?

From the avalanche of responses, here are a dozen examples of lessons from enticing opening lines and passages:

1. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Takeaway: “Keep your business writing and communications simple and clear to the reader,” says Melissa Forbes, vice president of public relations at LaneTerralever. “While wordplay has its place (in famous Russian novels, for example) trying to be pithy or clever can easily distract from the ‘need-to know’-facts readers and especially reporters need.”

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

“The day was 24 hours but it seemed longer.”

Takeaway: “Your audience has a lot going on today,” writes Brian Heffron, executive vice president and partner CTP. “Give them something worth their time.”

3. Middlemarch (George Eliot)

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

Takeaway: “Eliot’s line alludes to a beauty that is subdued by what Miss Brooke is wearing—but the specifics of each is up to us to fill in,” writes Karen S. Johnson, senior editor and content strategist for Crosswind Media & PR. “It also leads to questions that you want answered: What kind of dress? Why? Is it a tacky color? Torn and dirty? … To me, audience participation—in writing and PR—is the ultimate goal.”

4. I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Takeaway: “Sets a scene in the reader’s mind,” says Ari Ambrutis, marketing communications specialist with VetSource. “Establishes a sense of oddity. Establishes first-person speaker.”

5. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

Takeaway: Jake Tully, head of creative department at TruckDrivingJobs.com, sees leadership applications. “It’s simple to judge those who work for you without coming from a place of understanding, typically a pitfall that occurs when there is a lack of communication,” he writes. “Leaders need to be empathetic, reasonable and understanding.”

6. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

“Who’s there?”

Takeaway: When I hit up our chief executive, Mark Ragan—a former national political correspondent and Shakespearean actor—he stressed the importance of hooking your audience. “Shakespeare grabs your attention with a single, startling line—a line designed to quiet the groundlings standing in front of the stage,” Ragan says. “But that opening line also distills the meaning of the play: Who are we? Why are we here?”

7. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

“It’s such a compelling sentence,” writes Ying Huang, director of marketing at Block O’Toole & Murphy. “You’re immediately intrigued with the first part (it’s sticky), and then there’s this beautiful parallelism that comes afterwards when the narrator elaborates on it. “For me, those are two core elements I keep in mind when composing marketing copy—the stickiness of the content (sometimes, it involves an element of intrigue) and the structure of text.”

8. Ulysses (James Joyce)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Takeaway: This vivid description drops you right in the scene and hints at a fastidious character. Also, though modifiers often weaken a sentence, they are pleasing and digestible in this case.

9. Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis)

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Takeaway: Lighten up. There’s a place for humor in your copy.

10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

Takeaway: “Writing, publishing or being featured in a book adds credibility and visibility,” says Jasmine Powers, founder and chief marketing officer of J Powers Marketing & Publicity.

11. A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)

“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.”

Takeaway: “Compare and contrast,” states writing and editing coach Daphne Gray-Grant.

12. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut)

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all their names.”

Takeaway: “Tell the truth,” Ragan Executive Editor Rob Reinalda, advises, hearkening back to his journalistic roots. “It’s always more compelling than what you might make up.”

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