Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sensational Opening Lines

One of my favorite things to do in Barnes and Noble is go down a shelf row, pulling one book at a time and reading its first line. Sometimes the whole first paragraph is the hook, but I give snaps to authors who can grab my attention right out of the start block. So what is it about an opening line that makes it sensational?

For me, the best first lines have shock appeal. It’s an art form, really, because it’s so easy to do it wrong. The line must astonish rather than revolt, and possess a certain subtlety that draws readers to it instead of repelling them from it. Short, smart lines often work well.

An exceptional opening line sets the tone of the whole book. The mood descends upon you, envelopes you in its possibilities, casts its spell on you. The meaning of the first line goes beyond that of its subject and predicate; it tells you something about the entire work. And it insists you read on.

I was re-reading the first lines of books I own. Five favorite first lines from them are:

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” -- The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” -- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.

“It was not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” -- Travels, by Michael Crichton.

“Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely.” -- Mother of Pearl, by Melinda Haynes

“On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Fran├žois Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes.” -- Cane River, by Lalita Tademy.

Here is one blogger's list of literature's ten most outrageous first lines. It's even more fun to read the comments below it, especially by those debating Orwell's meaning when he used "a clock striking thirteen o'clock" in the first line of 1984:


Do you have a favorite first line? Or what about a favorite book with a terrible first line? (Think Bulwer-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night.") What's your criteria for a sensational opening line?