No, not me personally, but hopefully if you’re a reader or writer, have been to school, have any education in American Lit. whatsoever, you may recognize that line. And no, it’s not, as my daughter suggested, from the Bible. How about: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Is that the romance writer’s motto? Or one of the most famous lines in English literature? How about this one: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That might be a bit tougher since it’s a translation and, depending on which edition of the book you have—if you have piled through its 1100 pages—it may not be exactly as you remember it. So let’s try “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…”
Whoa now, as we say in the western historical business. That’s not only the opening paragraph, that is all one dang sentence and I haven’t even quoted it in full. If I submitted that to my editor today I’d probably get back a request to break it into smaller sentences. So what makes a good opening line? Is it the short and snappy, definitely memorable “Call me Ishmael?” Could it be the positive, highly quotable statements, offered in the middle two? Or the compelling resonance of the last? As writers we’re told to have a fresh, new voice and, to me, voice is what makes a good hook or great first line. Here is an opening of an equally famous book by the author of the last quotation, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar you have no idea from which of his many famous novels this comes: “Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns….” Now, thanks to the wonders of Google, I can’t make this into a quiz, but my own reaction is that, that opening is not as individual, not as specific to the story, as the previous ones. While it may not exactly be a “stinker,” it lacks the distinctive voice necessary to make a great first line. It also doesn’t set the tone of the book, give you any idea where exactly it is taking place, who the characters may be, or any sense of what, exactly, is to come. Look at, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That one, brief sentence gives you a whole world of information; furthermore, it pulls you straight into the story. And, more than anything, it has a very certain voice. It seems to me that, nowadays, writers are so keen to get straight into the action as their editors tell them, that the memorable first line has been left by the wayside.
After writing all of the above, my nephew pointed out to me that there are two websites of famous first lines: http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp AND http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/the-best-100-opening-lines-from-books I promise you I had not checked either of these sites nor any other prior to deciding which first lines to include here, so I was absolutely delighted to find that my five good lines scored on both sites. What surprised me, however, was that nearly half—43 to be exact, in the case of the first site—were post-1960. While I had certainly read a good number of the modern novels, I hadn’t recalled their first lines at all. So, was that because the older lines were drummed into me as part of education or because they were just better?
You might write to me and say that we remember the lines from classics and perhaps the truth is that we don’t write like authors of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. When I asked my daughter (double degree cum laude in Music and Latin American Studies; hence, not an English major!) if she recalled any first lines, all she could come up with was “Twas the night before Christmas…” So I’d like to know how many of you out there recognized without help any or all of the six first lines I’ve included above. If you’re a writer, I’d like to hear how much you sweat over your first line to make it a hook into the story? And I’d love to hear YOUR favorite first lines, particularly if they are more recent than these. On or about Feb. 21st, I’ll give away one copy of Loveland (opening line: “The clamor started at Ten o’clock when all the men were in their bunks.”) to someone who either ‘stumps’ me with a classic first line, i.e. pre-1960, I feel I should recognize, or enthralls me with a memorable post-1960 first line. And I promise not to cheat!
I’m pleased to announce that Katherine Grey has won the ebook of Loveland for totally enthralling me with the first line of Nora Robert’s Carnal Innocence. Sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to comment and bring other great first lines, both classic and modern, to my attention and join in this conversation.