How Important Is The Opening Line?
Do you sit there for hours trying to get it right?
The more important question that most writers have is “How important is the opening line?”
Stephen King did an interview in 2013 where he discussed the importance of the first line.
Of course, it’s a little do-or-die here for the writer. A really bad first line can convince me not to buy a book — because, god, I’ve got plenty of books already — and an unappealing style in the first moments is reason enough to scurry off.
If that doesn’t put pressure on us as writers, I don’t know what will! However, he ends up the interview with a different perspective:
A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.
We tend to focus so much of our time and effort on getting one thing perfect, that we forget the large amount of work ahead of us. So what are some of the ways of writing a good opening line? Here are a few that I follow, according to Writer’s Digest:
Make the opening line a statement of simple fact.
The entire weight of the narrative can sometimes be conveyed in a single statement. Think of, “I had a farm in Africa” (Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa) or, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) or, “I am an invisible man” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). No gimmicks. No fireworks. Just—as Mr. Gradgrind demands in the opening line of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times—the facts.
Use the opening line as a way of introducing the voice of the piece of work
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated opening is not designed to convey characterization or plot, though both are present, so much as to introduce his distinctive style. Anthony Burgess opens A Clockwork Orange (“What’s it going to be then, eh?”) without any plot, characterization or setting at all—merely the ominous voice that will accompany the reader through the text. Stories that begin with a highly unusual voice often withhold other craft elements for a few sentences—a reasonable choice, as the reader may need to adjust to a new form of language before being able to absorb much in the way of content.
Use the opening line as a way to establish mood
Contextual information not directly related to the story can often color our understanding of the coming narrative. Take Sylvia Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” While the Rosenberg execution has nothing to do with the content of the narrative, it sets an ominous tone for what follows.
For 4 more ways to set up an opening line, you can read the full article at Writer’s Digest.
Want to know the 50 best opening lines? Gawker just did a post of their top 50. You can find the list here. What do you think of this 50? Do you have any better ones? Let us know what your favorites are! When I get lists like this, I put them in my ‘swipe files’. That allows me to reference them later on when I’m sitting down to write and have mental roadblocks. Leave us a comment below on some of your favorite opening lines!