(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.” Ambrose Bierce

“The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality.” Valerie Martin

 “You can tell a book worth reading by its title and the first sentences.” William Sloane

“The first line must tear you out of your world and drop you into the world of the story.” Susanne Langer

“If you can’t catch the reader’s attention at the start and hold it, there’s no use going on.” Marianne Moore

“Start clean and simple. Don’t try to write noble and big. Try to say what you mean. And that’s hard because you have to find out what you mean, and that’s work.” William Sloane

“Begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop.” Lewis Carroll

“If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.” Flannery O’Connor

 “Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart.” Pat Conroy

“I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them.” John Steinbeck

“Readers are shy birds that have to be coaxed to come nearer. Nothing, then, is more desirable than a good opening if you want to lure rather than rebuff your potential reader. You first paragraph should not exceed medium length and may fittingly fall below it. Likewise the opening sentence, which ought to be capable of being absorbed in one breath. For this purpose it should be fairly simple in structure, though not necessarily a simple sentence in the technical sense. And by the same reasoning, its contents should catch the eye, hold attention, evoke interest.” Jacques Barzun

“For your opening, then, frame a declarative sentence that goes straight to the heart of things, awakens a serious curiosity, and in its quiet, assured finality establishes the competence of the demonstrator.” Jacques Barzun

“In short, like an opening, a close has work to do. Neither is a detachable frill. So inescapable is this function that a writer often finds his true beginning ten or twenty lines below his first sentence and his true closing ten or twenty lines before he stopped writing.” Jacques Barzun

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead.’” William Zinsser

“And of course not all fiction need move at the same pace. Runners of the hundred yard dash do not take off in the same way runners of the marathon do.” John Gardner

“Those first sentences of a novel are a contract between the writer of fiction and the reader who commences to read him. The contract has to be clear almost at once. What does the writer contract do in those crucial sentences? Several things that are, taken together, the core of the fictional process. First, he contracts to tell a story, not necessarily a highly plotted one, but a story. Second, he promises that the story will be told in terms of people, and most usually in terms of scenes, not descriptions. Third, he promises that there will be an end, just as there is, in front of the reader’s eyes, a beginning. And that adds up to a promise of some kind of fictional action—narration, conflict, change, and resolution. What does the reader contract to do? Simply to read, and in so doing to share the experience. This contract constantly has to be renewed as a work of fiction progresses. And this is accomplished mainly by the author’s use of technical devices upon which the reader subconsciously relies.” William Sloane

“That first page may make the difference between whether the editor reads it or not. No matter how great the rest of the piece is, the reader may never get to it.” Barnaby Conrad

“Page 1, even if it’s a page of description, raises questions, suspicions, and expectations; the mind casts forward to later pages, wondering what will come about and how. It is this casting forward that draws us from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter. At least in conventional fiction, the moment we stop caring where the story will go next, the writer has failed and we stop reading.” John Gardner

“To instruct the reader that he should quit when he gets bored, or instruct the writer that he should try not to be boring, seems absurd.” John Gardner

“Audiences give a film seven minutes. If the viewer is not intrigued by character or incident within that time, the film and the viewer are at odds. . . . Today’s impatient readers give a novelist fewer than seven minutes.” Sol Stein

“No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another sample. Readers have not grown more patient since that bit of research was done.” Sol Stein

“The value of a well-written opening is that it makes the reader ready to give himself to the writer’s imagined people for the duration.” Sol Stein

“Sometimes a single omen can do the work of several if it starts the engine of the novel. A novel is like a car—it won’t go anywhere until you turn on the engine. The ‘engine’ of both fiction and nonfiction is the point at which the reader makes the decision not to put the book down. The engine should start in the first three pages, the closer to the top of page one the better.” Sol Stein [my italics—UW]

“A good beginning establishes not only time, setting, means of perception, tone of voice, and scale—scale does not mean length as much as depth—but it also establishes the fact that something is going to happen.” William Sloane

“This reading order is not necessarily the order of the writing, and very often the beginning is among the last pages of the book to be written or rewritten. There are sound reasons for this. The beginning carries all the seeds.” William Sloane

“I do say to you that it is not fair to judge all novels, even the best, by their opening pages. But, speaking as a reader, I must say that I myself am tremendously influenced for or against a book by the manner of the opening, and that as a novelist myself I have put great stress into the opening of my books.” Elizabeth Bowen

“You start with a mystery—an unknown outcome: a character in a predicament.” Philip Gerard