‘I told the President I would help him recover the hydrogen bomb that had been stolen by Christian terrorists, but under no circumstances would I end my affair with the First Lady.’
Hopefully that sentence did exactly what first lines are supposed to do: grab the reader’s attention and make her want to keep reading, to find out more, to see what this is all about. The line above might be something one finds in a thriller, giving hints of dangerous intrigue (stolen hydrogen bomb), unexpected twists (the terrorists are Christian; what do they want?), and exciting, complex relationships (the narrator is sleeping with the President’s wife, and the President knows about it).
However, my first line breaks one rule. It does not set the stage and help illuminate the entire work, because this post has nothing to do with Presidents, bombs, terrorists or illicit affairs. It is about my favourite opening lines in literature.
I think the following first sentences are brilliant. All of them hit hard and fast and immediately capture the reader like especially persistent quicksand.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
You better not never tell nobody about God.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984
It was love at first sight.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I especially like this one:
A screaming comes across the sky.
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Kurt Vonnegut, one of my literary heroes, was a master at the opening line.
This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.
In his Slaughterhouse-Five, the first words you read are:
All this happened, more or less.
This is a fine opener, but soon the reader learns that this is not the start of the book. The narrator goes on to say that the book actually starts, equally strongly, with:
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
That line reaches out and grabs the reader. ‘Listen!’ it commands, and then gives a good reason to obey: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. How has that happened? What does that mean? I better keep reading to see what is going on.
Authors put an enormous amount of effort into the opening line, and then try to maintain it to get the reader involved. The first sentence of a book is to get the reader to bite, while the next couple of pages are to make sure he doesn’t slip off the hook. But when a writer gives the first sentence so much attention, sometimes it goes horribly wrong.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
A website, named after poor Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, has been devoted to terrible initial lines. Many are brilliant in their awfulness. You can read them at www.bulwer-lytton.com
Sometimes books that sell very well have absolutely atrocious starting lines. There might be a worse opener out there than this, but I’m not aware of it.
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.
Stephanie Meyer, Twilight
On the topic of poor opening lines, I have to confess that I dislike this one. I suppose even genius authors screw it up sometimes.
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
In fact, I’m not too fond of the first sentences written by other ‘Great American Novelists’ like Franzen, John Updike and Philip Roth. To me, they don’t have that special something that really makes them stick out. But here is one that protrudes so far into our culture that it has become an icon.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
The Holy Bible
Some openers like this have become so iconic, in fact, they are frequently imitated, sometimes to good effect.
In the beginning there were the swamp, the hoe – and Jussi.
Väinö Linna, Under the North Star
Many classic works of literature have opening lines that have reached, or are approaching, iconic status. I especially enjoy these:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
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.
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
This one borders on purple prose, but I still love it:
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.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Call me Ishmael.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
A favourite tactic is to start with a quote. I did it myself.
‘No one goes to Finland in the winter.’
Me, Mohamed 2.0
Hopefully my initial line got a reader’s attention. I wanted them to think: ‘Yes, in winter Finland is a frozen nightmare landscape of broken dead trees and eternal darkness, where people either shoot themselves or stay constantly drunk to escape their living hell. Why in the world would someone go there? I will keep reading to find out.’
But I happily admit that my opener is a steaming pile of rubbish compared to these that start with quotes:
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
‘To be born again,’ said Gibreel Farish tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
In my opinion, what follows is the greatest opening line in the English language. In fact, it is almost perfect, in that it is impossible to stop reading after the first sentence. In my quote I could not obey my own rule, and simply quote the first sentence. I was compelled to keep going until the end of the first paragraph, when the author finally releases his unbreakable grip and allows the reader to take a breath. That is exactly what a first line is supposed to do, and this is why I think this opener is one of the best that has ever been written.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita