Recently I made a bet with a friend over the outcome of Euro 2012 (why? I don’t know thing about soccer, or football, if you prefer). Shockingly, I lost, and as payment, I’m required to read a book of his choosing. Assignment: Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’ve never read a graphic novel before (I know, I know) and so quickly scanned the first page to see what I’m in for.
This is what I found:
“Rorschach’s Journal. October 12 TH, 1985.: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”
My reaction: wow! Though I’m mid-way through two other books, I wanted to toss them aside and keep reading. And that got me thinking about first lines, whether we need to have a great one, and what makes them great. I started plucking other books from my shelf to see if they had similarly fantastic opening lines. Most didn’t. They weren’t bad, but definitely didn’t grab me in the same way this one did. But some stood out, and I’ve reproduced those below, along with my immediate reactions to them and followed by a discussion of what makes them great.
(I restricted myself to the first sentence from chapter one, not the prologue, if there was one.)
First lines from books on my shelf:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
Reaction: In medias res, funny, modern, gritty/edgy.
“The primroses were over.” Watership Down, Richard Adams
Reaction: Foreshadowing bad things to come, cycle of life, nature, countryside, old-fashioned.
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.” Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Reaction: What suffering? Sympathy for character.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Reaction: Literary, funny, profound, true.
“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
Reaction: High fantasy-feel, epic, broad focus.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
Reaction: Distinct voice, second person, curiosity about character, close focus (inside character’s head), run-on sentence.
“’To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die…’” The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Reaction: Dialogue directed at me, philosophical, religious, magic realism, fable.
“I believe what separates humanity from everything else in this world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.” Hey Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland
Reaction: Quirky, drawing relationships between seemingly diverse items, philosophical, humorous, modern.
“They’re all dead now.” Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald
“The birds saw the murder.” The Way the Crow Flies (Prologue), Ann-Marie MacDonald
“The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor.” The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald
Reaction: Curiosity provoking, dark, serious, weighty, cutting to the heart of things.
So what do these first lines have in common that makes them great?
First, they all capture the voice and style in which the story is told. You can tell instantly whether you’re about to read an epic fantasy, a literary classic, a charming tale, or a gritty, modern story. They also all touch on the major theme or concern of the story—whether it’s a murder, a character study, a philosophical examination of religion, or a series of drug-induced shenanigans, it’s right there in the first sentence.
And maybe that’s it: these first lines are something like elevator pitches. They accomplish a lot in a short amount of space; they’re pithy. These books have something to say, plots specific enough to be hinted at in a single sentence, and are written in a consistently strong voice, or style. In a way, it’s probably the greatness of these books that made it easy(er) for the authors to craft excellent first sentences.
So, must our novels have great first lines? While I think it’s necessary to have a great, or at least very good, first couple chapters, it probably isn’t as vital that our first lines go down in history as some of the greats. Most people will keep reading even if the first line is a bit bland, giving the author at least a chapter or two to win them over. Personally I worry my novels-in-progress don’t have strong enough central themes to birth brilliant first sentences, but that’s a topic for another post.
But whether it’s necessary or not, don’t we all want to hit our readers smack between the eyes with something like, “This city is afraid of me”?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your favorite opening lines and why? What makes an opening line special?