Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines)

Opening lines that propel the reader into the mythic

This post is the third in a series on what makes any story’s – flash through novel – opening line great. Part 1 provided some background and why opinions only matter if you know enough about a subject to make an informed decision.
Part 2 covered what makes an opening line great.
Let me know what you think are great opening lines and I’ll include them in the series provided you explain what makes them great.

Fish mentions some websites that list beautiful sentences. You can find websites that list great opening lines and Fish has a “First Sentences” chapter in his book.

I had a problem with the websites: they offered a line, its source, but didn’t explain why the line is great.

How frustrating!

Perhaps they feared being subjective, hence being called in error. Kind of like everybody pointing at the sun and saying “That’s the sun.” Not much argument. Ask “Why is that the sun?” and people wonder at your intelligence if not sanity; isn’t it perfectly obvious that the sun is “the sun”?

We’re back to the toddler expressing pure joy. I’m not questioning that the sun is “the sun”, I merely want some reasons behind the statement. There are other stars in the cosmos. How come they’re not “the sun”?

Well, to the denizens of some planet orbiting those other stars, said star may indeed be “the sun”.

Specifically, their sun.

Subjective.

I may agree the sun is “the sun” and I may agree an opening line is great/beautiful. I may not know why. Don’t explain your reasoning and I remain the joyful toddler, able to experience joy but not being able to recreate it at will.

How cruel.

I agree with some and definitely not all of Fish’s selections. The ones on which I disagree are due to their lack of elegance.

Mathematicians word for “beauty”, “great”, “excellent”, et cetera, is “elegant”. Elegant mathematical proofs/solutions have two qualities combined: purity and simplicity. Purity means there’s nothing extraneous in the proof, no confusing elements that need to be removed. Simplicity means you can get from the first step to the last with a minimum of moves, with little effort. I can tell when a mathematical proof is elegant and I’ve been involved in mathematics since 8th grade (Yo! Miss Turgeon! Remember that “F” you gave me because you didn’t understand the math? I’ve got patents based on it now!). I can tell a good Scotch from a not so good Scotch (Moran Tang, Calum!). Sometime soon I may be able to tell a good wine from a not as good wine.

Some of Fish’s selections for great opening lines aren’t elegant. They’re so convoluted (beautifully written, yes) that I have to read them either slowly or several times to figure out what they’re about (inelegant).

Here I list my choices for great (elegant) opening lines and why I think so. The list will grow over time (I’ll share more great opening lines in other posts pointing back to this one). Feel free to share your great opening lines with me, just be sure to explain your reasoning.

Enjoy!

“Lessa woke, cold.” – Anne McCaffery’s Dragonflight
First, wow, it doesn’t get any better than that. This is the opening line I always come back to when discussing great opening lines.

I mentioned in Part 2 that great opening lines take you into the book’s mythic and you’re either in or you’re out. This line takes you into the mythic because everyone has awoken and been cold. Two physical experiences shared by everyone on the planet. Read “Lessa woke, cold” and if you’ve ever woken and/or been cold, you’re experiencing what Lessa’s experiencing.

Also, if you’re from a western educational background, the name “Lessa” signals a female. Lessa, female, Lesso, male. The single name, Lessa, implies a middle-class if not lower-class background. It’s not “Madam Lessa”, “Princess Lessa”, “The Lady Lessa”, it’s simply “Lessa”. People tend to root for the underdog, middle- and lower-class people tend to be underdogs in stories, so the reader is rooting for her without realizing they’re rooting for her. The majority of fantasy readers are (or at least “were”) from the middle- and lower-classes. Upper class people read popular books so they can talk about them when they gather, to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise/experience. Middle- and lower-class people read popular books to escape. The reader ego-identifies with Lessa based on shared cultural experiences.

McCaffery propels you into the story’s mythic in three words.

Freakin’ brilliant!

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or The Whale
Another three-word gem. The reader is introduced to the narrator but only on the narrator’s terms. “Call me Ishmael. My name’s Fred, but I prefer you call me Ishmael.” What’s the narrator hiding?

Also, “Ishmael”. The biblical Abraham’s first son and the one cast aside, discarded, denied, yet also the one God hears. The narrator wants us to know that he’s both discarded and favored. The book’s title is “Moby Dick, or The Whale” therefore our narrator, because he’s telling the story as something that happened to him, that he experienced, tells the reader “The Whale both discarded and favored me.”

The narrator doesn’t want you to know he’s the sole survivor of a disastrous whaling expedition, but does want you to listen to his tale of redemption, of being both discarded and favored by an evil god, ie, The Whale.

Nice.

“In the beginning, God…” – Genesis 1:1
Believe or not, the Judeo-Christian bible has a great opening line. It sets the tone for the rest of the bible and for belief. “In the beginning” = “there was nothing before this. It starts here.” “God” = “this is the being who made everything else possible. There was nobody else doing anything, there was nobody else to do anything, whatever comes after, this is the being that’s doing it, that’s in control of it, that’s getting it done.”

For the faithful, there’s nothing to question. You literally are there or you’re not. Accept that opening line and anything else written between the covers is a breeze. Immaculate conception giving you a problem? In the beginning, God. Understanding the Trinity giving you headaches? In the beginning, God. Original sin upsetting your stomach? In the beginning, God.

Anything you question, any discussion you have, any challenges you want to present, if you proclaim the faith, In the beginning, God.

We had a joke in seminary. The opening line of the bible also demonstrates that baseball is god’s favorite game: “In the big inning…”

“It was the best of times, …” – Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
The full first line is “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

First thing, I can hear the exhaustion in the narrator’s voice. “was…was…was…” A no-no in any modern writing guide, Dickens pulls it off by see-sawing the reader between extremes: wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, … You’re either bouncing against the wall or rollercoastering to hell and back by the time you finish this one sentence.

But then Dickens hits you with “in short, the period was so far like the present period…” Not only was “it” the ping-pong game from hell, it’s exactly the same way now. Nothing’s changed. You were tired reading that first sentence? Catch you breath, we’re just starting.

But wait, there’s more: “that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Hey, politicians haven’t changed, governments haven’t changed. In one sentence the reader is primed for pure pessimism; fear and loathing in London and Paris. Gotta love it!

For what it’s worth and while we’re on the subject of Charles Dickens, I’ll throw in “I am born” from David Copperfield. It doesn’t qualify as an opening sentence – it’s a chapter title – but you can’t argue with a narrator telling you that everything starts “here”. This is Dickens taking a swipe at God in Genesis and a damn good one for pretty much the same reasons.

“Uriel Macon began riding horses before he could read, …” – Joanell Serra’s the vines we planted
The full first line is “Uriel Macon began riding horses before he could read, his hands grasping his uncle’s waist as they rode the trails along the northern edge of the Sonoma Valley, inhaling the scent of ripe grapes.”

We know immediately who the story’s protagonist is; Uriel Macon starts the book and the reader is sharing his history and world. Anybody who’s been around horses or ridden them immediately feels the saddle under them, the steadiness of their gaits, with “began riding horses”. You smell their sweat and hear their breathing. If you haven’t ridden a horse you’ve seen one ridden in real life or in the movies. You don’t have the full experience to draw on and you have enough to start you in the book.

Next up is “…before he could read…” Not only are we on the horse, we’re a child on the horse. A toddler. More images. “…his hands grasping his uncle’s waist…” Comfort, trust, a knowing elder. “…as they rode the trails along the northern edge of the Sonoma Valley…” Even if you’ve never been there, you can imagine riding along a mountain crest shielding a valley. If you have been there, you can see the valley, the vineyards, the scrub, feel the heat, smell the earth. Even if you haven’t been there, I’m sure many of those sensory impressions are available to you. “…inhaling the scent of ripe grapes.” More sensory detail. Specifically, heady, primal sensory detail.

Bravo, Joanell, Bravo!

“He did not have the look of a man who frightened easily.” – John Maxin, Time Out of Mind
Here is a first line that causes questions: Who is “He”? “What’s frightening him?” We know immediately the “He” is frightened by something. The only way to find out what is frightening him is to read more of the story. We also know something about him. Whatever is frightening him, it’s causing a reaction He doesn’t normally have, a stronger than usual reaction, ie, this threat is big, important, something He isn’t use to, not part of his common experience.

If that’s not enough, chances are the reader is discomfited, ill at ease, made uncomfortable by that first line; He is not easily frightened but he is and we, the readers, don’t know what is frightening him. Perhaps we should be frightened, too?

“If he is the boy in the blue book, where to start?” – Charles Frazier’s Varina
Another opening that causes questions except the reader is asked a question (as surrogate to the main character) to start things going. As above, who is “he”? The blue book, whatever it is, must be important because, if he is the boy in the blue book and by implication the book is already written, the beginning is in question, meaning what the reader knows and will be told will be in question. How to resolve it? Keep reading. Elegant and excellent.

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Okay, this is two lines. Sue me. I think it should actually be written as “It was love at first sight: The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” making it a single sentence.

Regardless, most readers being told “It was love at first sight.” become curious. Who’s in love with whom? What was that meeting like? Then the reader is hit with the zinger, “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” We may know little else about Yossarian but we do know Catch-22 is about WWII, specifically the US military during WWII, Yossarian is a male and the chaplain is male. We’re given a demonstration of the existential conflict that drives the rest of the novel in the first (two) lines.

But what type of love was it? It was a “mad” love, implying passion, probably denied physicality. The reader has to keep going to learn how this is dealt with in the novel’s environment. And if you haven’t read Catch-22, it just gets better.


There you go, my first set of great opening lines. This list will extend through other blog posts as I discover more great lines. Remember to share yours with me (and give me your reasons). I look forward to learning.

9 thoughts on “Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines)”

  1. I intended to reply earlier, but it takes research. Now I’ve got a few ideas.

    One thing, though, is that I’m often a kind of anti-analyst. The why of something’s goodness cannot always (but perhaps sometimes) be understood better by breaking it down. On the other hand, I think there are valid ways to construct an understanding of certain kinds of good opening lines (or other brands of goodness). The catch is that there are billions of other kinds that won’t fit the formula. I.e., I stick to my guns on the concept that aesthetics is so complex that we can only focus on one tiny aspect at a time and can never get a complete picture or understanding. Thus, there will always be surprising exceptions to any rule, guideline, or construction.

    Concision and clarity can be important aspects of a line, opening or otherwise. We may even hold them as exceptionally valuable in an opening, when there is no context but that which we are in the process of creating. Nonetheless, I think that concision and clarity are neither necessary nor sufficient for defining a good opening line. So how can I do it? I think, as suggested, mainly by example and an effort to understand each individually.

    Here are some opening lines I came upon lately after looking at my shelves:

    Hunger, by Knut Hamsun, translated by Robert Bly: “All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania–that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him….”

    It gives us something to anticipate, it introduces a potentially interesting character through his particular perspective, and it leaves us wondering what particular mark was left on him. It characterizes a person and a place, but has a lot of mystery to drive us into what follows. And it is pretty concise and clear.

    Niebelungenlied, Anonymous, translated by A.T. Hatto: “We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors–of such things you can now hear wonders unending!”

    Rather than be concise, the author immediately indulges in a catalog of treats for us to anticipate. It makes a bold pledge to the reader that we wait to see fulfilled.

    {This is getting long, so maybe I’ll seek out some more lines and reply with more later.}

    1. Howdy and thanks for commenting.
      The Hunger opening doesn’t work for me because “All of this happened”. The reader has to know the story ahead of time or accept that no definite problem is offered. A more visceral opening is something like “The Black Plague happened”, “The Invasion of … happened”, “The collapse of the Mercantile Palaces of Venice happened”, et cetera. Basically something that quickly brings the reader into the author’s universe.
      Completely agree with the Niebelungenlied and for the reasons you stated.
      Again, thanks for commenting.

      1. As for the “All this happened,” I don’t think we need to know what “all this” is, we just need to be curious about what “all this” could be. Also, the character isn’t confronted by any definite problem, other than the problems he creates for himself, other than the fact that he’s hungry and in a strange place.

        Also, regarding “Call me Ishmael”, I like that very much too, it is a line that pretty much had to come up in this conversation, and it’s entered the public mind as an archetype of a great line. But what I don’t think I’ve heard much is that this line is also inelegant and crude. I like its immediacy and simplicity. It grasps the reader by the hand and declares, “Hey, buddy, here’s my name.” (Of course, it could also be a wink and a nod to the fact that naming a character is an arbitrary but necessary convention for a writer, or that it could be a pseudonym of some hidden significance, but that reading may be a stretch.) Now, the first page of Moby Dick is some serious madness. Before Ishmael meets Ahab or hunts any whales, he’s already pretty far gone. He doesn’t have Ahab’s brand of monomaniacal madness. He has the youthful, aimless madness of one who follows whatever impulse takes him just to see what disaster it will lead to–a quality that makes him, as a character, akin to Hamsun’s Hunger protagonist (unnamed… so much for that convention), and Celine’s Ferdinand in Journey to the End of Night.

        1. As you note, we need to be curious. “All this happened” is too broad in a world with limited attention. For that matter, it’s too broad period and is indicative of a time when reading and storytelling were the mass market entertainment. Not that such is a negative – I spend most of my time reading and storytelling (can’t be all that bad, correct?). The point is, readers as a group prefer specific to the general. A rule would be “In fiction, be specific. Leave nothing abstract. Because it is fiction, it needs concreteness to be believed.” In fiction, be specific. Leave nothing abstract. Because it is fiction, it needs concreteness to be believed.

          Ishmael – I think the crux is the name being that of the cast aside son, and that the narrator is stating from the outset that he’s hiding something. Put that in the milieu of the many biblical allusions and the story jumps out.

    2. More openings:

      Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things:
      “What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?”

      An instant dilemma and an enticement. And… I just started reading your novel, dude, what are you accusing me of!?

      Choosing something from Kafka is a tough choice, but why not go with “The Bucket Rider”:

      “Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it.”

      Yikes! It’s very gloomy, obviously cold, every detail compounds the problem, and nature is given a harsh persona.

      1. I’m unfamiliar with Sorrentino. Interesting opening. Not sure I’d call it great, definitely interesting, though. I find the rhythm interesting; 5/5/10/10, a slow/slow/fast/fast pull on the reader who gets through the first two clauses. The narrator is talking directly to the reader? Hmm…better make sure the reader is engaged. The enticement aspect cuts out half the audience, though. Not good in an opening sentence.

        Kafka. I generally enjoy Kafka. I agree with your comment on the line, not sure it’s a great first line, though. Am I sharing the narrator’s sensory experience? For the most part, yes. But do I care? Is there a reason for me to care? Where’s the risk? What’s the threat? What’s at stake? So far all I know is that the narrator is gloomy and looking outside of themselves for help. Is this someone I want to spend my time with? Probably not.

        1. But, wait. We’re discovering a gulf in our understanding of what a great line is or can be. Don’t forget you’re talking to one of those guys who don’t care much for audience.

          Opening lines don’t exist independent of the works they’re attached to. Anyone who would turn away from reading The Bucket Rider because they don’t want to spend time with a narrator who’s gloomy or desperate at the outset simply isn’t in the right place to appreciate this story. If the first line were changed, the second line would turn the reader off anyway.

          Gilbert Sorrentino could try to write an opening line with more potential for mass appeal. But the rest of his book never had any potential for mass appeal to begin with. It had the hopes (moderately achieved) of being greatly appreciated by a select audience. It was never going to be Gone With the Wind, or even Diary of a Wimpy Kid #5.

          With regards to Hamsun’s Hunger and its opening, if audiences today have limited attention, or if they prefer the specific to the general, then that’s a failing of the reader, not the author.

          Keep in mind that the same supposed reader of today would be likely to pick up A Tale of Two Cities and say “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ That doesn’t even make any sense! Does this guy think he’s clever? As for the rest of the sentence, tl;dr.”

          One other thing worth looking into: Why is it that most genuinely great novels do not begin with anything resembling the kind of “great lines” we’re examining here? A random sampling turns up these lines: “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.”; “There was a man named Mord whose nickname was Gigja.”; “At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.”; “In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters.”; “The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran.”; “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”; “The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.”; and “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” These openings are from: Malone Dies by Samuel Becket, Njal’s Saga, Don Quixote by Cervantes, Candide by Voltaire, The Plague by Albert Camus, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Most of these authors do not mind a certain degree of vagueness or generality rather than specificity, and most do not appear to think it necessary to hook the reader or to meet him or her on the reader’s own terms.

          So, the qualities of exceptionally great opening lines are probably worth examining to see what we can learn from them, but it’s notable that most great books don’t start with one. And while certain goals can be defined for *one brand* of great line, there are always going to be other equally valid and diverse approaches that don’t contain those qualities. The more we attempt to be precise in our definition, the narrower it becomes, and, ironically, the less valid it becomes, because we attain specificity only by sweeping away the many exceptions which, in fact, constitute the majority of examples.

          1. But wait. If I thought you were serious I’d be concerned.
            You “don’t care much for audience.”? Oh, come on. Pull the other one while you’re at it.
            You’re extremely concerned about audience. Anybody who writes a blog comment – especially on this site – and references the authors you reference and the writings you reference…of course you’re concerned about audience. You’re marketing yourself (and I hope it’s an intentional effort) to a very specific audience; those few, those precious few, who’ll recognize the names you listed and works you mention. I mean, really: Cinua Achebe? (I autorcorrected that to “Sonny Chiba”). Njal’s Saga? Voltaire? You didn’t even spell Beckett’s name correctly. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you definitely would have spelled Beckett’s name correctly (but I’ll admit, you have me going until I read that).
            But let’s say I take you seriously for a moment.
            “Opening lines don’t exist independent of the works they’re attached to.”? Then why do we call them “opening lines”? We’re not calling them “opening lines to great literature.” We’re not evaluating the entire content, just one amazingly small piece of it to determine one specific element: its ability to draw the reader into the author’s reality, the story. ie, to keep the reader reading.
            Your premise for argument is flawed, at least as far as the “Great Opening Lines” posts are concerned. I’m considering lines separate from the works that contain them. I have to. My god, man! Most of the written word sucks! That’s why most of it wasn’t published until the past 10-15 years when anybody with a mobile could put crap on Amazon and call themselves an “author.”
            But thanks for your comment. Gave me a chuckle.