As some of you may know, I published my second book this week. It’s always a bit daunting when years of work go into something you’re just hoping someone might give a chance to. The first impression (well other than the cover, and that might be another blog for a coming week) is, of course, the opening line.
But what makes a great opener? I’ve now published two of them, and while they may or may not be great, I was certainly aware of the weight of how I chose to open each story.
For the record, my openers were these:
- “So much of Connor’s and her story had been told through pivots.” Enso
- “Staring out at glittering lights, like those which once imprisoned me, I freeze. Once again, I freeze.” Bound in Neon
The point to this blog is not to debate whether or not you liked these lines. It is not even to debate whether you care for the others I’ve listed below. The question is, and I think it is a fair one: What makes for a successful first line?
Perhaps we should begin with a few of the contenders. While there is no definitive list, a perusing of this search engine or that will show that there are a few openers which seem universally held in high regard. In no particular order whatsoever:
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell: 1984
- “Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Albert Camus: The Stranger
What each of these openers has is intrigue. Orwell not only balances an odd combination of weather conditions, but then also hits us with the impossible proposition that the clock has just struck thirteen. What Camus has done is taken an event about which no one could ever forget the most minute of details and somehow distanced his speaker from it in a matter of two sentences.
It is notable that both of these openers are short (ish). Sure, neither is Herman Melville’s three word classic, but neither approaches A Tale of Two Cities’ opening
paragraph sentence either. So, intriguing and not too long–is this that formula then? Perhaps. But then a second group presents itself as well.
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude
- “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.” J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Both of these sentences feature a narrator who is looking back to the past. What in the world could have led from an outing with dad to a firing squad in the first example? What could have happened to the narrator to make him so standoffish in the second? Both of these examples feature a look back to where the story started. I must admit that this is a style I find very attractive. Both of my stories start with prologues, and I’ve always loved the “Here’s where I am. Now as to how I got here” approach. However, one must also notice that each of these two examples, once again, feature that level of intrigue.
So is it length? Is it perspective? Or is it just a little bit of intriguing ambiguity? Writers can’t even agree on whether good writing is determined by how many copies one sells or by the art of it all, so I’m sure there is no answer to be had.
All I’d like to know is how my all-time favorite didn’t make a single one of the lists I checked.
- “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Dante Alighieri: Inferno