A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published an interview with Stephen King, by Joe Fassler. It was part of a series in which authors discuss their favorite passages in literature, and King ended up talking about the importance of opening lines in a work of fiction. It turns out the prolific writer puts much, much thought into how he starts his novels. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he told Fassler. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King revealed that he works on his opening paragraphs for weeks, months, and sometimes years, wording and rewording until he”s happy with it.
“If I can get that first paragraph right, I”ll know I can do the book.”
* * *
This was one of my favorite interviews I”ve read in a long time. I”ve long been a secret fan of fictional opening lines, mentally collecting my favorites—some of which I remember verbatim. It helps when they”re short and haunting:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
(A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, by Norman Maclean)
The circus arrives without warning.
(The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern)
Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
(The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver)
Ethan said, “I hate baseball.”
(Summerland, by Michael Chabon)
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
(The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Even though Ryan Fisher didn”t believe in God, he placed an ad in the Christian Business Directory.
(The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher, by my friend and co-author Rob Stennett)
* * *
Some opening lines are much longer, and rather than recalling them in their entirety—I”m no memory savant—I remember the way they made me feel. Some stirred an emotion or set an atmosphere the first time I read them. Others, upon reading them again, rekindle a love for the story they begin to tell. I read these first lines and fall right back into the book”s voice:
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
(The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green)
Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.
(The Passage, by Justin Cronin)
Having harbored two sons in the waters of her womb, my mother considers herself something of an authority on human foetuses.
(The River Why, by David James Duncan)
We drove past Tiny Polski”s mansion house to the main road, and then five miles into Northhampton, Father talking the whole way about savages and the awfulness of America—how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks.
(The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux)
* * *
Some opening sentences are surprisingly unimpressive. In thinking about this post, I returned to favorite books whose openers somehow hadn”t lodged themselves—either the words themselves or their feeling—in my head. Why hadn”t they? Probably because their first lines were pedestrian and unmemorable, even though the books themselves are classics…or classics in the making:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
(Harry Potter and the Sorceror”s Stone, by J.K. Rowling)
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.
(The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis)
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring.
(Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier)
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
( by Suzanne Collins)
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.
(Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry)
* * *
Other first lines have had an even greater impact on my life. John Irving is a master of opening sentences, and his first line of A Prayer for Owen Meany has been embedded in my mind since I first read that novel in the mid ’90s. I read it, devoured the story, was knocked flat by the ending, pressed it upon my wife, bought multiple copies (including a first-edition hardback), loaned them to friends, gave them as gifts, and then Aimee and I named our son Owen. It started with this:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother”s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
It”s the greatest opening sentence in the history of literature.
* * *
The most important seasons of my life have been marked by the books I”ve read. Many of my stories start with the lines in this post. They establish a voice. They extend an invitation. As King said, “it”s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul.” There”s power in the first line of a novel.
Anyway, these have been some of my favorites. What are yours?