“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I’ll give you a minute…
(Insert Final Jeopardy music here)
Time’s up. Could you identify them? Come on now. They’re classics. You’ve probably read at least one or two as a school literature assignment. OK, here are the answers:
The first is from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The second, and probably the most famous short opening line, is from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. And the final line is from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Well, how did you do? If you’ve never thought much about a novel’s opening line I invite you to think again. Opening lines are important. They’re the first thing a buyer reads, after the cover copy, when browsing volumes in the bookstore or library. They set the tone for what follows and, in many cases, demand us to continue reading.
Stephen King said this about opening lines: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
I think there are six reasons opening lines are important:
- They pique our interest in the novel, making us want to keep reading. Take: “They shoot the white girl first.” from Paradise by Toni Morrison. Or, “The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.” from Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins.
- They portend coming developments. In Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage we can feel the coming battle in the opening line: “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” And, we can anticipate a road trip gone horribly wrong with the line: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” From A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.
- They reveal something about an interesting character. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” tells volumes about Jeffrey Eugenides’ protagonist in Middlesex.
- They create a sense of anticipation during a potential dull stretch of introducing characters, setting, and plot. The opening chapter of a novel can be slow, but see how these opening lines can make you want to speed through any dull parts: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” from The Color Purple by Alice Walker; and “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
- They begin a connection with the reader. We can’t help but feel a connection with the following writers after reading these opening lines: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and “Here is a weird one for you.” from Signifying Nothing by David Foster Wallace
- They establish the novelist’s voice. These opening lines introduce the novelists’ unique voices: “Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” from Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle; and “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” from William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
If you’re writing that novel, make sure your opening line is one unforgettable starter. Your audience will thank you.