The best of the first revisited

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a good opening line for a story, after highlighting a couple from books I have discussed recently. Here is one of them:

“Ever since his young wife had given birth to a cat as an unexpected consequence of his experiments in sexual alchemy, and ever since his accidental invention of a novel explosive that confounded Newtonian physics by losing its force at the precise distance of two metres from the source of its blast, President Veracruz had thought of himself not only as an adept but also an intellectual.”   Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord

To me, an opening line isn’t just about making you want to continue reading; it’s about how the writer uses those first few words to make the rest of the book seem irresistible. I love those first lines that are quite quirky; that include some kind of strange juxtaposition or question that is just begging to be answered (sparking only a mild interest just won’t cut it.) The two above are good examples of that. But there are some classic first lines, often quoted merely because they are classics, which to me, don’t always live up to this criteria. For example:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.”    The Old Man and the Sea

Maybe it is all just a matter of opinion – some people might find this intriguing – but forgetting anything you might know about Hemmingway and the context of the rest of the book, and at the risk of being universally hated for trash-talking a classic, to me this opening line makes me think nothing more than Meh. Particularly in comparison to something like this: maximise the paranoia in a place that is unquantifiable but that is clearly full of depraved people –

“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.”    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Or create an impossible situation in one simple, short sentence:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”    1984

But who am I to judge? I should really offer up the first line of my own novel for scrutiny:

“If she had known how the events of the night were to unfold, then maybe she would not have gone.”    Beneath the Surface

Not quite of the calibre of 1984, but hopefully not too bad. For those interested in further reading, this article in The Atlantic is interesting – authors discussing their favourite lines. Feel free to comment with some of your own.


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