Last week I opened a book and the first line was so thoroughly uninspiring that I gave a small incredulous yell and immediately closed it, forever. That line was, ‘It was Thursday and I was making soup.’ Congratulations, author who shall remain nameless, with those eight unbelievably dull short words you have put me off what may well be an excellent story. I realise this may just be my opinion, but in a ranking of days and foods, I’m pretty sure ‘Thursdays’ and ‘soup’ are the dullest. There is in fact a competition for the worst opening lines that has some fantastic examples of awfulness; a winner used the imaginatively terrible ‘He swaggered into the room with a certain Wikipedic insouciance‘.
The opening line of any piece of writing really matters. It is your first impression and it needs to be good. What do you want people to know about your book? A lot can be established in one line. For example, 1984 begins: ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ George Orwell instantly demonstrates that we are in an alternate future where things are fundamentally reordered.
Establishing theme is a common factor in many of the most famous opening lines. Sweeping statements in the author’s voice are often best remembered: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ With parallel phrasing and a lovely contrast, Charles Dickens immediately introduces social dichotomy as a central subject of A Tale of Two Cities. A universal declaration is also used by Tolstoy to begin Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reader infers that what follows will be a personal drama with much pain and unhappiness.
Imperatives work well to start things off; they draw the reader directly into the action. Consider this from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: ‘“You will marry the boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The mother’s attempt to find her daughter a suitable boy to marry is the core of the story. The conflict over this is also confirmed by the use of the adverb. Using dialogue to begin can pull the reader straight into the characters’ relationships. First person can have the same impact: ‘Call me Ishmael’ works as a simple, iconic imperative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Beginning at the end is a device often employed. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca begins: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Using a dream perfectly expresses the significance of this place; the evenness of the syllables gives it a rhythm. We are also told that the book will be an open and deeply personal recollection.
A real favourite is from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.’ This always gives me a laugh. The first line should prompt an immediate reaction from the reader, whether it’s amusement, interest, excitement, recognition or empathy. Don’t just start to tell the story; tell the reader something about the story.
What do you think makes a good opening line? What’s your favourite? I’d love to know! Comment below and please do like and share!