Before you start quoting the likes of such classic (and highly memorable first lines) as “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”, take a moment to think about the last few books you read and loved. Can you remember the opening lines?
The very fact that these unremembered lines convinced us to keep reading until we loved the books means they did their jobs to sparkly perfection. I looked up the first lines of five of my favorite reads from the last year:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“From a little after two oclock [sic] until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and the dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”—Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”—The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.”—My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
“On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world.”—East of the Mountains by David GutersonSo what make these lines work? What about them makes us want to read on? Let’s break them down into five parts.
1. Inherent Question: To begin with, they all end with an invisible question mark. Why is the other side of the bed cold? Why are these characters sitting in a hot, dark room? How can silence be divided into three separate parts? Who did they hang in the old days—and why don’t they hang them anymore? And why and how has Ben Givens appointed the time of his death? It’s not enough to tell readers what’s going on in your story; you have to give them just enough information to make them ask the questions, so you can answer them.
2. Character: Most of these opening lines give us a character (and the rest quickly introduce their characters in the sentences that follow). The first line is the first opportunity the reader has to meet and become interested in your main character. Faulkner and Guterson ramp this principle to the max by immediately naming their characters, which allows readers that many more degrees of connection.
3. Setting: Most of these lines also offer a sense of setting. In particular, Faulkner, du Maurier, and Rothfuss use their settings to impart a deep sense of foreboding and to set the tone of the book. Modern authors are often shy of opening with description, but a quick, incisive intro of the setting not only serves to ground the reader in the physicality of the story, but also to hook their interest and set the stage. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold explains that opening lines “that hook you immediately into the hero’s dilemma almost always follow the hook with a bit of stage setting” and vice versa. The opening line doesn’t have to stand alone. It is supported by and leads into the scaffolding of all the sentences and paragraphs that follow.
4. Sweeping Declaration: Only one of our example books (du Maurier’s) opens with a declaration. Some authors feel this is another technique that’s fallen by the wayside, along with the omniscient narrators of Austen and Tolstoy. But the declaration is still alive and well, no matter what point of view you’re operating from. The trick is using the declaration to make readers ask that inherent question we talked about above. “The sky is blue” or “a stitch in time saves nine” are the kind of yawn-infested declarations that lead nowhere. But if you dig a little deeper—something along the lines of William Gibson’swhy? “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—you find not only a bit of poetry, but also a sense of tone and the questions of that make readers want to keep going.
5. Voice: Finally, in every one of our examples we find the introduction of voice. Your authorial voice in general, and the voice of this story in particular, is your reader’s introduction to you. Your first line is your “hello.” Don’t waste it. Is your book funny, snarky, wistful, sad, or poetic? Make sure we find that core element in your opening line. Don’t hand readers a joke at the beginning if your story is a lyrical tragedy.
Opening lines offer authors their first and best opportunity to make a statement about their stories. Play around until you find something that perfectly introduces your story’s character, plot, setting, theme, and voice. Your opening line may be as short as Suzanne Collins's. It may (heaven forbid) be as long as William Faulkner’s. It may be flashy, or it may be straightforward. Whatever the case, make sure it’s an appropriate starting line for the grand adventure that is your story.
Tell me your opinion: Do you remember the opening line of the last good book you read?
Related Posts: Use a Question to Create an Unforgettable Opening Chapter
Is Your Opening Line Lying to Your Readers?
Why Opening With a Characteristic Moment Is So Important?
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Story by K.M. Weiland