Have you ever read a book that hooked you completely from the very first sentence?
On the recommendation of Amanda Cade, I started reading Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor, and I was absolutely drawn in from the opening line – which don’t worry, I’ll share in a moment. It grabbed me from the very first words, and while I’m nowhere near finished with the book yet, I know I’m going to enjoy it just from the strength of those words alone.
Opening words are important. Think of it as a time signature for your book. If your first sentence is short and punchy, people are going to expect things to move along quickly. If your first sentence is slower and contemplative, the reader knows that things are going to be thoughtful and better paced. If your first sentence is a page-long run on sentence detailing how the main character looks in the mirror in the morning, the reader knows you didn’t hire an editor.
So I decided that today, it’d be fun to look at the anatomy of a good opening line, looking at some of my all time favorites – starting with Strange the Dreamer’s…
“On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.” – Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor
Normally I’d ding an opening line for having any made up words in its opening line, but Strange the Dreamer does that right. You don’t know when you read it what Twelfthmoon is, but the name and context makes it clear it’s a unit of time – and then any confusion of it is utterly obliterated by “in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.” It takes me immediately into the story and into the moment. The part about the second Sabbat of Twelfhmoon is what I meant about the time signature – by including that before the city of Weep and the girl falling from the sky, Laini Taylor lets us know to expect a slower boil, but promises things will heat up.
“The building was on fire and it wasn’t my fault.” – Blood Rites, Jim Butcher
This one is a later book in the Dresden Files series, so it has a different kind of impact. If you’re reading Blood Rites, you’ve probably read some of the other books, so you know Harry Dresden, you know his propensity for getting into trouble, and you know damn well it’s entirely possible the building being on fire is completely his fault. Even if you don’t, however, this is an opening line that lets you know you’re getting right into the action and probably going to have a few laughs while you’re there.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer, William Gibson
With this line, William Gibson not only opened Neuromancer, but pretty much set the tone for all of Cyberpunk ever. It’s an excellent use of using very specific analogies that set the tone better than just telling or even showing the reader what the sky looks like. On top of that, it’s a slower opening line than the other books I’ve mentioned so far, and while Neuromancer is by no means a slow novel, it sets the pacing for what to expect – something with a degree of noir sentimentality but a technological edge.
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.” Hogsfather, Terry Pratchett
Honestly I probably could have picked anything Sir Terry Pratchett wrote for this, but Hogsfather is one of my favorites because of how it takes a cliche, and then irreverently turns it on its head to the let the reader know there in for something that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that they should expect digressions throughout the book. Hogsfather then goes to deliver on that promise in spades.
“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.” Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik
This opening line is another one I’d consider somewhat risky, because it gambles on the reader wanting to read the second line, but it does an excellent job pushing them towards doing exactly that. It also very firmly establishes the “Grown-up Fairytale” tone of the entire book by having the narrator directly address the reader and talking about stories themselves in its first first words. The reader is going to know right away that this is a take on a fairytale, and is going to want to read the second line to at least figure out which fairytale is being spun here.
What are some of your favorite opening lines? Let me know in the comments below!