Last night I dreamt I wrote about first sentences again

Last night I dreamt I wrote about first sentences again

I've been meaning to write about favorite, effective first sentences of novels and stories I enjoy. Last night, my re-reading of the shorter Sherlock Holmes stories reached "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," and I read

" 'But why Turkish?' asked Mr. Sherlock Holmes, gazing fixedly at my boots."

(From "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," 1911, in "His Last Bow" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

With that, I knew it was time to post a few of my favorite openers. Of course, "last night" is a clue to one of my favorites, even if you're not reading this the day after I got the idea. Here's the sentence:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

(From "Rebecca," 1938, by Daphne du Maurier.)

That sentence alone makes "Rebecca" a favorite; even though it's full of mysterious emotion that make a great story, it grabs me immediately. Who are you? Where's Manderley? Again -- what happened the first time?

But while "Rebecca" is a wonderfully spooky distraction, sometimes what I need is a retreat. Morris L. West's books are great that way. I save one until I can agree with its opening:

"Suddenly I was sick of the savagery of the world."

(From "Summer of the Red Wolf, 1971, by Morris L. West.)

But not all of my favorite opening sentences come from favorite novels. One, from a novella collection, wastes no time getting me involved -- and wondering about boundaries in my own life:

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

(From the title story in "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories," 1976, by Norman MacLean.)

Of course, you didn't think you'd get away without more Conan Doyle, did you? Here's the opening from my favorite short story, period:

"It was in the spring of the year 1894 that all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed, by the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances."

(From "The Adventure of the Empty House," 1903, in "The Return of Sherlock Holmes," by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

Here's the opening to a much more recent series of books -- good books that led to good television:

"Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective."

(From "Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death," 2012, by James Runcie.)

Sidney did become a detective, in multiple books and the TV series "Grantchester."


Filed under: Sustaining Books, Writing


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  • thanks -- now maybe some first lines per margaret-serious -I hie back to Mark Twain/Will Rogers stuff ( no samples here) but you keep me reading -- peace

  • In reply to william22bowen:

    You're welcome, william22bowen -- both in the sense of replying to thanks and welcome to the discussion.
    I'm glad you're keeping up your own writing, which I enjoy (elsewhere). Peace to you, too.

  • In reply to william22bowen:

    Thank you for the idea about my own first lines. There has been some rumbling in the Writers' Room of my imagination (watch the apostrophe -- not the singular Writer's Room, that's all mine, but the plural Writers', where others hang out). Watch this space!

  • "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is marvelous! Thanks for sharing your favorite first lines and stories.

    I wonder if "it was a dark and stormy night" is one of the most famous and parodied first lines ever?

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    I thought of this too. According to,

    "The first 'dark and stormy night' was conjured up by the English Victorian novelist, playwright and politician who rejoiced in the name of Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton. It has become synonymous with the Victorian melodramatic style, of which Bulwer-Lytton's many works provide numerous examples. This style has long been out of fashion and considered kitsch and risible. So much so that, since 1982, an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been sponsored by the English Department of San José State University, California. Contestants are required "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels"."

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    It is also the opening line to "A Wrinkle in Time"---I'm sure Madeleine L'Engle was having a bit of fun, too...

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thanks, jnorto. I'm not fond of this style... except maybe as an excuse to call it "kitsch and risible." Words worth defending there!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    You're welcome. Snoopy's parodies of that other line always seemed best to me.

  • Now I want to reread Rebecca, again.

    Wait, maybe that would be a great first sentence!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Yes, of course it's a great first sentence. It's got me wondering: What happens when you re-read it? What happened the first time?

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Me, too! In fact, I've been thinking that for a long time. This will happen this summer!

  • I have a first sentence for a novel but still working on its development:

    " I encountered the savage as I entered the spa."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    It could be a great first line for a novel but you are very good at rhyming wit. Why not turn this into a real challenge by making it the first line of an epic poem? This worked for Steven Vincent Benet, and he didn't have nearly so good a first line for John Brown's Body.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Interesting idea. But it would require endless research, and I doubt I could sustain the creative energy it would take.

    But I appreciate being even mentioned next to a literary giant like Benet.

    Let me make it a mysterious quatrain.

    I encountered the savage as I entered the spa.
    He seemed to greet me with what sounded like "wah".

    That night it turned stormy and grew very dark.
    And I swear that I saw him again in the park.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Well done. "The Mysterious Quatrain" sounds like a great bookstore.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Wow! That even leaves me wondering who's speaking, you or a character, along with the all-important "What next?"

  • BTW, I have a good second line for that case from "His Last Bow":

    Show me the Carfax.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    You scintillate today, my dear Aquinas wired.

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