It does for fiction what a movie trailer does for film. You know what to expect, you catch a glimpse of what the book will be like. Great openings set the tone for the story.
“All that I write was once real life.”
This is one of my favorite openings. It’s from The Shining Burrow, Max Blecher’s last novel. I find it a fascinating opening line, because Blecher was sick most of his life; he died young, at the age of 29, and all his novels are autobiographical. This adds a different dimension to his line.
I genuinely believe that it’s a very important to know as much as possible about an author before reading his work; you can see themes and motives and influences. And more importantly, it makes connecting with his words a much easier task.
But let’s get back to opening lines. Some writers go for a strong beginning, something that would effectively force the reader to read the next sentence. A very short, grabby sentence.
Much like Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Or maybe Toni Morrison’s Paradise, “They shoot the white girl first.” I’m a big fan of these type of opening lines, short and witty. Albert Camus’s Stranger has another great opening, “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
In the same manner as Camus, Nabokov in Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.“) and Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground (“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”) manage to grab a reader’s attention from the start.
The opening line can also be a statement, something that offers a cold definition of the world the story is anchored in (Fahrenheit 451, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984), or something much simpler than that. It can be the key to solving the story’s most subtle of riddles. Who knows? Some writers even cut to the chase, like Kafka did in Metamorphosis (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”)
There are many ways to start a story or novel. Mid-action, with a witty line, even with a line of dialogue (though I’m not a big fan of opening a story with a line of dialogue Salman Rushdie did it particularly well in Satanic Verses, “”To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”” )
A story can begin with a description of a setting or a character, a fictional entry from a journal, it can start with someone dying, someone already dead, someone ready to die or to kill. It can shock, it can smooth the way for the reader, slowly making him suspend disbelief.
Hector Yanover, director of the National Library of the Argentine Republic, composed a list of such famous opening lines. I do keep one myself. Maybe because I want to keep intact the feeling I got when I read that novel, so by reading again the opening line, I can feel again. Characters, plots, situations, all that, fade away in time, but the feeling we got when we first read a story, that’s, like they say in Mastercard commercials, priceless.
I have to admit that I’m a bit obsessed with openings. I want to write the perfect one, the one that will force anyone to read on. In The Writer, I tried to start every chapter with some ridiculous, bizarre statement. Some are pretty nice, like the opening from the first chapter: “The only thing that is worth remembering, and worth remembering over and over again, is that in this world, under all and any circumstance, nothing ever happens.” Another chapter begins with: “My life began with a death. As selfish as it seems, it’s nothing but true.”
Maybe opening lines are not integral to a story’s success – after all, there are bad stories with great openings, and great stories with not so memorable first lines.
What are your favorite opening lines?