Opening Lines With Power

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 12:37 min

Salman discusses the unique value of opening sentences and shares successful examples from literature as well as his own work.

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Topics include: Opening Sentences in Great Literature · Arriving at Opening Sentences: Haroun and the Sea of Stories · Sentences That Drive a Story: Midnight’s Children


[MUSIC PLAYING] SALMAN RUSHDIE: "At the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that united moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape." Very early in the book, you need to, so to speak, make a contract with the reader. You have to say to the reader, I'm going to tell you this kind of story. And then, if they like that idea, they'll stick with you. You know, I think the worst thing you can do as a writer is to make the reader a kind of promise about the sort of story you're going to tell them and then not tell them that kind of story-- break the contract with the reader. That's very, very annoying as a reader. If the book is going to be surrealistic-- if it's going to have elements of fantasy, et cetera-- they need to be there to begin with. If you write what looks like a realist novel, and suddenly on page 150 a spaceship lands from Mars, it's going to annoy people. Because you haven't set up that expectation. Unless you're doing it deliberately for shock value-- you know, to create a world that appears to be everyday and humdrum and normal, and then something really shocking happens in that world-- like a spaceship landing from Mars. That works. But then that's because you know that you're doing it to shock people. On the whole, start as you mean to go on. You know, so if you're going to write a realistic novel-- if you're going to write a novel, a love story, if you're going to write a thriller, whatever you're doing, start as you mean to go on. The best explanation of the power of the opening sentence that I heard was-- I once went to a book reading by the author Joseph Heller, the author of "Catch-22" and other books. And he said that most of the books he had written had grown out of a single sentence-- that he had written a sentence and he immediately saw that that sentence gave him another couple of hundred of sentences, that that sentence opened the gateway through which the whole storyline could follow. It's like a kind of open sesame, you know? It's like the key that unlocks the door, and then the book flows from it. The way to arrive at an opening sentence-- I mean, to try and, you know, find your way to it as a-- as a practice exercises-- is to think, what is this book actually about? And I don't mean so much in terms of story. I mean, what kind of book is it? You know, is it a comedy? Is it a horror story? Is it a thriller? Is it a love story? Is it an epic? Is it a surreal novel? What is it? And whatever it is that your novel is going to be, your opening sentence should in some way expre...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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