Friday, July 27, 2007

First lines: The art of setting the hook

When I'm browsing books, I always give special weight to the opening line. The very best of them set up the essential conflict right off the bat. They reassure you that, yes, there's a story here, and you're not going to have to wait until Chapter 8 to get interested in it. I'm a great fan of opening lines, from the famous to the obscure. Often they're the reason I take a closer look at a book I might otherwise pass by.
So it's interesting to examine this list, compiled by American Book Review, of what they deem the 100 best first lines of all time. Some I agree with; others ... meh.

For example, the No. 1 choice: "Call me Ishmael." I don't know. While eloquent, as a single sentence it doesn't really grab you by the throat, or suggest the epic struggle to come in Moby Dick.

Then there's that other famous beginning: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy's oft-quoted opening to Anna Karenina ranks No. 6. This, I think, does a better job of what a first sentence should do: tell you that this is not going to be a story about happy (and therefore boring) people.

Personally, I am most fond of lines like this: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." I haven't read this book, The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks, but with an opening like that it's just a matter of time.

Of course, I wouldn't bring this up if I didn't have an opening line of my own to offer, from my upcoming story "Strange Days" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's not literature, but I think it helped sell the story: "Loin cloth, black loafers and a foot-long Bowie knife: It wasn't a great look for an out-of-shape man in his 60s, especially one whose torso had not seen the sun since the Carter administration."

Any great first lines stick in your mind?

9 comments:

Peter said...

That's a good opening sentence -- from "Strange Days," I mean. There are some pretty dreary and some pretty thoroughly unsurprising entries on that list. I always wonder when I see such lists why none ever seems to include the opening to The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil: "There was a depression over the Atlantic."
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

Iain M. Banks' opening line sounds like an echo of James Thurber's "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father," if I remember it correctly. Now, that's a good opening line.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Dave Knadler said...

Agreed. They really don't make writers like James Thurber anymore.

Upon further reflection, I think that list gave more weight to fame that actual effectiveness.

Sally Crawford said...

There speaks a journalist.

First lines are it, wherever you find them.

First lines of poems represent an art form (think of the first bars of a symphony or similar: you're in there, ready or not).

I'm having a look at a couple of Don deLillo's as I write.

'White Noise':
'The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus.'

'Falling Man':
'It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.'

dave_lull said...

From Rasselas:

"Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia."

Dave Knadler said...

That's a wonderful line! It does just what an opening line should do: Make me want to read more about this Rasselas guy. I'm assuming all does not end well.

dave_lull said...

From The Rambler No. 32:

"Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven with our being. . . ."

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