Our Favorite Opening Scenes in Fiction

Potboiler

Ever heard of the page 69 trick? It’s said that, if you want to know whether you’ll enjoy a novel, you should turn to page 69 and start reading. If you like what you see, buy the book. But I think that starting at the beginning is the better (and fairer) test—openings are designed to draw you in, to give you just the right info at the right time. To prove the worth of the page 1 test, here are some of my favorite opening scenes in fiction, all of them followed by stories that more than pay out the early pages’ promise:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

“When the phone rang, I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”

From the very first line of Wind-Up Bird, we know we’re in Murakami-land: the pasta, the cool first-person narration, the meticulously sourced jazz. Somewhere in the background is a missing cat, and soon there will be a missing wife, followed by a series of intriguing, occasionally vicious women. But first, back to the opening scene. The narrator picks up the phone, and:

“‘Ten minutes, please,’ said a woman on the other end.
I’m good at recognizing other people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.
‘Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?’
‘To you, of course. Ten minutes please. That’s all we need to understand each other.'”

The surreal, erotically tinged phone calls that follow, from a woman who never identifies herself, are the perfect entry into the off-kilter world of Wind-Up Bird, and their open-ended uncanniness flavors everything that follows.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

“I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

And so we meet Philip Marlowe, the original hardboiled detective, an honest cynic who likes his brandy “any way at all.” In the same clean, intensely detailed prose, Chandler renders Marlowe’s business call to the lavish estate of the Sternwood family, and introduces the babyish younger daughter of the house. A wild child barely into her “dangerous twenties,” she’s the recent victim of a blackmail attempt. Of course nothing’s ever that simple for Marlowe, and he ends up, as ever, neck-deep in other people’s muck. But rest assured, there will be guns, perps, dames hard and soft, and amazing one-liners (mostly Marlowe’s).

London Fields, by Martin Amis

“This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening.
This is a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck.
And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.
This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will.”

These are the opening words of the narrator, Samson Young, a blocked and dying writer, sitting on an empty red-eye flight from New York to London. He’s in the city to write his final work: an account of a murder that has yet to happen, predetermined and orchestrated by the “murderee,” the fantastically named Nicola Six. The love/hate triangle that precedes the event is narrated at a dry distance by Samson, and backdropped by The Crisis, an international, possibly nuclear situation that’s never fully illuminated, but informs the fatalistic tone if not the plot of London Fields.

What’s your favorite opening scene or sentence in fiction?

  • Felicia Camacho

    “When
    I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie
    house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
    S E. Hinton, The Outsiders

    • Isabel Herron

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  • Felicia Camacho

    The best one to draw you in though is:
    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want
    to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and
    how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that
    David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
    –J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

  • James

    “Oh shut up!” The old woman snarled, glaring at the eight children around her in a loose semi-circle, “You will do your chores! You will be quiet. I want to hear no more of this nonsense, about someone coming to adopt you. You are here because nobody wants you! Now, what do you say?” She said, raising an eyebrow, and the children all looked at their feet, sad expressions on all, “Thankyou, Jeanine, thankyou for your generosity.”

    – Shakna Israel, Daughter of Markus.

  • John

    “Everyone remembers where they were when ‘they’ landed, just like they
    remembered where they were on 9/11, which had happened only a decade
    earlier.”

    – “Them,” Dennis Vogen

  • Taylor Staples

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” – ‘The Dark Tower’, Stephen King

  • Letters Mezzanine

    The opening chapter to Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’ is incredibly rich and magical. It’ll stay with me for a long time to come.

  • Steve D

    “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

    • Melissa Albert

      Chills, every time.

  • Katie Rotvold

    “Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt.
    West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself,
    awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have
    been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather,
    an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect
    city joke—stand around and point upwards, until people
    gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were
    staring upwards at nothing at all, like waiting for the end
    of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer
    they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped
    dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe.
    Or a construction worker. Or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly
    still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.” – Colum McCann from Let the Great World Spin

  • Doug_Jeffreys

    “When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world.
    And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.” – Jonathan Maberry, Patient Zero

  • Carol Deatherage

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again…….
    DuMaurier. …Rebecca. best first line!

  • Guest

    “It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.”
    -Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

  • Guest

    It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the
    middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed.
    It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they
    think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or
    asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the
    dog.
    -Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

  • Victoria

    “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think he or she is wonderful.”
    Roald Dahl, Matilda

    “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”
    Scott Westerfeld, Uglies

  • Devin Oeland

    “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four letter words they scrawled.”
    Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

  • Ana Berkovich

    “I right this sitting in the kitchen sink”

    I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (my favorite!)

  • Stephen Trevathan

    I just read a new book called Esther’s Sling that had a great opening chapter. This was one of those books where you don’t find out how important that opening scene really was till the final act of the story. I actually highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of good military-based thrillers. What’s more, this book is from a completely new author on the block, Ben Brunson. I have to say that I was a little apprehensive reading a book from an unproven new author, but I have to say that I was blown away by this novel. Esther’s Sling examines what might happen if Israel took action against Iran, but if you want to read a better description of the book, I’d go to the author’s page: http://benbrunson.com/esthers-sling/

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