I remember having several English teachers, especially early in my schooling, who spent a great deal of time talking about how important a good opening line is. As they likely did for many of you, they called this opening line a “hook,” and explained how the entire fate of the universe, or at least my essay, rests on having a “hook,” a first line that will draw readers in and make them desperately excited to learn more about what I have to say on such fascinating topics as Lyme’s disease, Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, or the intelligence of dolphins.
Cynical me eventually decided that the whole concept of a “hook” was probably something dreamt up by teachers bored of reading thirty five essays on dolphins that all began with “Last year, my family went to Sea World,” and that even if it did exist, it was probably really a whole first paragraph (for essays), or chapter (for books), rather than a single line. After all, the lectures on “hooks” were back in the days when I sometimes wrote essays as short as five hundred words. So while I do try to make my openings interesting, I typically don’t spend a lot of time worrying over making that first line really memorable for the reader. If someone isn’t at least willing to read my first paragraph, they’re probably not going to make it through a two hundred and fifty thousand word novel.
Still, there are some books that have really memorable first lines, and this past weekend I got to thinking on the subject. I came up with a handful of opening lines that I could quote from memory:
- “Marley was dead, to begin with” – A Christmas Carol
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – A Tale of Two Cities
- “‘Twas a dark and stormy night” – Paul Clifford (?)
- “Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king” – The Way of Kings
- “The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts” – The Name of the Wind
I don’t count the third one, as I’ve never read the novel, and it’s become something of an archetype. Nor do I entirely count the second one, since it’s mostly memorable because this book is still taught so often in schools. That gives me three really memorable opening lines, out of all the books I have read.
Examining these opening lines, it is somewhat difficult to separate how much these lines are memorable for themselves, and how much because they are associated with really amazing books that I have read multiple times. What I found telling, though, is that there are several books that I would rank in the same field as these, like The Lord of the Rings, that did not make the list. That was sufficient reasoning to suggest to me that there is something uniquely memorable and catching about certain opening lines, so I set out to try to determine what it was that made each of these so distinctive.
Starting with A Christmas Carol, I think a major part of the line’s strength is how jarring it is. You’ve read the title, and you probably know a little something about the story, you open up this festive, classic Christmas story and discover a plain, matter-of-fact announcement of someone’s death. So the line immediately stands out. It is followed up by significant narration, during which we learn almost nothing about this mysterious dead person, aside from the fact that he is, in fact, dead. Very, very dead. As dead as a doornail, or even a coffin nail. I think it’s the composition of the mystery, and the unexpected that makes this opening line particularly memorable, and that was much what I found with the other two, as well.
Technically, this is not the first line to The Way of Kings, since that novel/series is of such epic scope it requires not one, but two prologues. However, discounting the prologue set thousands of years in the past, this is the opening line of what I consider the mainline events of the first Stormlight Archive sequence. Like the opening for A Christmas Carol, it is surprising, coming right out and saying that he’s here to assassinate someone important, and includes a healthy portion of mystery – why is Szeth going to kill a king? Why is he wearing white? Why is he referred to in relation to his grandfather instead of his father, as would be more traditional? Who, for that matter, is Szeth? Where is Shinovar? What is a Truthless, and why is Szeth one? The mystery is what really drives this line and makes it so memorable.
While the opening to The Name of the Wind also has a certain amount of surprise to it, this one is memorable primarily because of how distinctive it is. This opening line is poetic in its content, and reflects the near-lyricism characteristic of the novel itself. It begs the reader to ask how a silence can have three parts, and it is utterly unlike almost anything else you will typically encounter in the genre. Just writing about it makes me want to go check and see if Rothfuss has done any more work on the third installment, but I know that would be an exercise in disappointment.
What I find memorable is not necessarily what everyone else will find memorable, but this gives me a place to start: distinctive or surprise, and raising questions or mysteries, are the properties most likely to make an opening particularly memorable. Naturally enough, I decided to come up with a distinctive opening line of my own. Since I’d been thinking recently about the implications of Carrington class events on a modern-day electronic architecture (as one does), and struck upon the idea that a similar effect could be inflicted upon the human brain, I managed to come up with this:
“A man awoke in bed with two strangers, and one of them was himself.”
I have some interesting ideas that I’m exploring based on that line, so perhaps you will eventually see a story that starts with that here on the site. In the meantime, what opening lines have you found particularly memorable? I don’t think a memorable opening line will really make or break a novel, but it certainly can help.