If there were a coronation for King of First Lines, the award would no doubt have to go the late Elmore Leonard, who simply had a knack for openings that other writers would give their left arms for.
Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb. — Freaky Deaky
The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming. — Glitz
One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca. — Gold Coast
Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something. — Bandits
You can go on and on with these. Leonard wrote some 50 novels, after all. But it raises the question (and it’s been a long standing question): just what’s in a great first line? What makes some openings snazzy and others just fizzle?
It’s easy enough to make the usual observations: a first line should start in the middle of the action; it should “hook” the reader; it should leave the reader wanting more.
But no all so-called great first lines do this. What is compelling about Call me Ishmael when you subtract the context of Melville’s great whaling adventure, or when you strip out the magnificent sentences that follow those first three words?
Very little, if you ask me.
If a writer today opened a novel with Call me Bob would anybody care? Not likely. If it sounds like I’m picking on Melville, my apologies, but if we are to consider what makes a great opening line we have to establish something up front: a first line is not great because the novel it begins is great.
You may love The Grapes of Wrath, and it may indeed be one of the great novels in American literature, but that does not make the following a great opening line: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
Note: you can make a case for Steinbeck’s line–and I would–but it is not inherently great simply because the novel is so.
Odd Ball Openers
Many of the great first lines in our literature are noted for their oddity. They present the reader with something so peculiar, so entirely out of place, that the reader is compelled to continue reading in order to understand this strangeness or contradiction.
This technique is used quite often in science-fiction, where strangeness is a way of life.
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. — 1984, George Orwell
Clocks don’t strike thirteen, obviously. At least, not in our world. But in Orwell’s dystopian future, they sure do. Unlucky thirteen.
It was a pleasure to burn. — Fahrenheit 451 , Ray Bradbury
Yeah, well, usually it isn’t. Aside from pyromaniacs, people don’t usually find burning shit pleasurable.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. — Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce
This is the kind of sentence that either entices you or makes you simply go WTF and chuck a book across the room. To me, the fact that Joyce begins a novel mid-sentence is bizarre enough to warrant a little further reading (sadly, Finnegan’s Wake is so maddeningly opaque as to not really be worth the effort).
What the odd-ball opener really does is signals to the reader that this is a very different world, and thus a different reading experience. Here’s something, kid, that you ain’t seen before. The trick, of course, is to use just the right amount of bizarre. Joyce’s sentence, for all it’s intrigue, is a bit like a soup spoiled by too much salt.
The One-Two Punch
As I noted earlier, not all first lines are great in and of themselves. They become great within the context of the lines that follow. Many writers begin a novel with an opening paragraph that functions much like an opening sentence. Like great boxers, the beauty isn’t in the first punch, but the combination of blows.
Let’s go back to Melville:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
In the context of the paragraph, we can see Melville’s artistry at work. The opening line is very much like a sharp jab in the eye. Three words, by far the shortest sentence in the opener. Orphaned, it is a meek and mild beginning. When seen with its brethren sentences, its purpose and its genius become clear.
Or consider my all-time favorite opening:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing. — Cannery Row, John Steinbeck
Steinbeck takes his time setting up his punches, but when he hits you with the zinger at the end, it really makes you smile.
Again, though, consider how the very first line of that paragraph isn’t much on its own. It needs the sentences that come after it.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. — The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
The beauty of the one-two punch approach is that it allows the writer space for a miniature set-up and pay-off. Rarely is this approach one that involves a lot of action. Instead, the one-two punch establishes mood, setting, tone, all elements that are critical to a successful novel.
You can even draw this out beyond a single paragraph, as Ernest Hemingway does in his two-page opening to A Farewell to Arms. Those pages are a master class in fine writing and how you establish the world of the novel at the beginning.
I used the one-two setup in a story of my own, Til Death Do Us, from my collection The Other Side of the Door:
The box arrived Thursday morning without any kind of label. It was small and plain, and Kenny Perkins left it on the edge of his desk until just before noon. When he finally opened it—he heard a wispy scratching from inside the box as he did—he discovered his wife’s severed finger and her wedding ring.
Not every great first line is fully unique in itself. Sometimes the writer deliberately wants to echo certain works and writers that have come before, thus linking their story to particular stories of the past.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. — Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
In this case, the opening line of the novel is quite brilliant in itself, but Nabokov wants us to know too in this opener that he is harking back to Poe’s poem of doomed lovers, “Annabelle Lee.” Those winged-seraphs in that princedom by the sea? That’s all Poe.
In Dan Simmons’ spectacular novel of evil hauntings, he too echoes earlier works:
Old Central School stood upright, holding its secrets and silences firmly within. — Summer of Night, Dan Simmons
Ringing any bells? Simmons updates Jackson’s Hill House, locating it not within a stately home but within a rural school. In this way, Simmons both pays homage and signals that his own novel will be distinctly different.
All novelists are storytellers. But some opening lines are less about hooking the reader with the bizarre or with inciting action, and are more about establishing the voice of the writer.
The opening of Huck Finn certainly fits this bill, as do the openings of many first-person narrator novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, David Copperfield.
But there is a unique quality found in certain writers that is easy to spot but hard to fully classify. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it The Natural Storyteller Voice. It is a writing style that eschews any obviously literary stance (Nabokov clearly wouldn’t fit the bill). A style that pulls the reader close and makes them feel like their being told a good fine yarn by an old friend.
The master of this style is Stephen King. In fact, King’s real genius is to have so carefully crafted and mastered this approach that readers everywhere imagine that it is not a literary device at all. The only critic who apparently noticed was Peter Straub, who called King’s style and voice his “greatest invention.”
By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. — The Dead Zone
This is the story of a lover’s triangle, I suppose you’d say — Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine. But I want you to understand that Christine was there first. She was Arnie’s first love, and while I wouldn’t presume to say for sure (not from whatever heights of wisdom I’ve attained in my twenty-two years, anyway), I think she was his only true love. So I call what happened a tragedy. — Christine
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. — IT
In a recent interview, King went as far as to say that he believed that readers don’t come to a writer for action or character or even story, but for the voice of the writer. That it was the voice that mattered most of all.
What is deceptive is that this approach does not appear literary, but it most certainly is. Read over that first line from IT again and ask yourself how carefully balanced those clauses are, how finely tuned its rhythm.
In the Middle of Things
Finally, there are the classic first lines known for getting the action going. These lines usually announce some event or circumstance that must be addressed immediately. Almost always, this event involves danger or mystery.
Crime novelists (like Mr. Leonard) are often at an advantage, since their work inherently deals with these types of situations. It is no surprise that so many great first lines come from novels of mystery, crime and suspense.
She was standing at the center of the subway platform, waiting for the uptown train to come in, when the man stepped up to her and punched her. — Kiss, Ed McBain
Suicide bombers are easy to spot. — Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child
Two hours before the accident occurred, Devlin Jamison drove over the crest of a hill on the pitted two-lane asphalt and saw, far below him, the multiple lanes of the east-west highway, the yellow octagon of the stop sign. — Cry Hard, Cry Fast, John D. MacDonald
Ok, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death. — Decider, Dick Francis
People love stories of murder, adventure, crime, etc. So starting a novel with death and plunder is often a great way to kick things off. When people think of lines that “hook” readers, they are often thinking of these kind of openings.
A Few Parting Favorites
Alas, a few of my favs:
Ignatius Martin Parish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. — Horns, Joe Hill
The legless man was wise enough to understand that heroes can be found in the damnedest places. — The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Don Robertson
I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down. — Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler
What are some of your favorites?