Like the lothario in pursuit of the sexual or even the sincere suitor in pursuit of the romantic, every serious writer aspires to compose a great first line.
Think of ardent chess players: why do they spend so much time and energy learning the variety of gambits (opening moves) unless it is to establish dominance and intimidate the opponent?
However, unlike the chess master, the writer hopes the first line will establish tone and entice the reader, like the art of seduction mentioned before.
Actually, writing is a form of seduction, for the writer wants the reader to follow along and accept whatever follows as fact—even if it’s not. There is probably little argument that having a grand opening can really set up everything else that follows.
Even most literary-deficient American can probably identify the novels that begin with “Call me Ishmael,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” or “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect,” or “Who is John Galt?”
And who doesn’t know, within three guesses, who coined the phrase “Once upon a time”?
Perhaps lesser known but just as powerful is Ralph Ellison’s opener: “I am an invisible man.”
George Orwell’s first sentence in 1984 (“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”) is itself striking in throwing the reader off balance with the familiar (“a bright cold day in April”) and the strange (clocks “striking thirteen”). Returning to the states, we see Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five begin by informing his readers, “All this happened, more or less.” Like Orwell’s start to 1984, Vonnegut pitches a curveball by conjuring up an image both weird and ordinary. Where do bells strike thirteen? How do things happen “more or less”? Another great start to a dystopian novel happens when, in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s narrator observes, “It was a pleasure to burn.”
While an economy of words seems the standard, most all of us can name the writer of “’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.”
Although most well-known for Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s Picture This likewise starts with a more extended and wonderfully confusing scene showing the reader how “Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer thought often of Socrates while Rembrandt dressed him with paint in a white Renaissance surplice and a medieval black robe and encased him in shadows.”
Robert Graves also broke the less-is-more mold—and gave Faulkner a run for his money in syntactical endurance—when he opened his seminal work I, Claudius with this one: “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius,’ am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”
Anthony Burgess, the man I hold as the greatest English writer of the 20th century, was a true artist with his native language along with several others, and he concocted one of the most “outrageously provocative first lines” (according to UK’s The Telegraph) when his novel Earthly Powers declares, “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
Throwing readers off balance is an effective technique, and in Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler gives a real twist to the traditional fairy tale opening by telling her readers, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
Equally confusing and enticing are openers such as “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, or William Goldman’s narrator in The Princess Bride who proclaims, “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”
How can one not smile at the opening of Pride and Prejudice when Jane Austen notes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife,” or the way Zora Neale Hurston discerned that “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins appears prescient when presenting what could have been a parody of The DaVinci Code except that it was released years before Dan Brown’s religious thriller hit the shelves. Robbins sets up his Monty Pythonesque style novel about renegade mercenary priests with this gem: “The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”
Even the small presses can knock it out of the park as when Allen DeLoach began a short story with this gem: “It was as good an opening line as any.” Perhaps he was reacting to W. Somerset Maugham’s, The Razor’s Edge opening confession that “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”
Gotta love those.
Sometimes stating the obvious is the most effective, a trick that Leo Tolstoy employed in Anna Karenina by telling his readers, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
However, I still haven’t revealed my favorite opening line, and for that, I need to circle back around to Vonnegut and his first novel, 1952’s Player Piano, which was the first book of his I read.
“Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts,” his narrator states. Thus begins the story of Paul Proteus along with my lifelong admiration for Vonnegut’s acid-tinged style of “sci-fi” that’s really not sci-fi. Since getting hooked by that book, Vonnegut has become one of those writers whose works I’ll buy automatically—the same way I’ll get any recording by David Byrne, even unheard.
Why did that line in particular capture my attention and admiration for the author?
The answer is simple: I felt I was part of an inside joke with Vonnegut because I am one of those educational anachronisms who studied Latin in high school. During my third year, the class focused on translating Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, perhaps the original press release to justify war as well as one of the earliest and best examples of propaganda.
How does that Classical piece of writing begin?
“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” which translates as “all Gaul is divided into three parts.”
Here was a writer who knew how to take the classical and incorporate it into a modern piece, allowing Vonnegut, as Roman poet Juvenal liked doing, “to prick with a sly smile.”
The moment I encountered Vonnegut’s parody of Caesar’s “official report,” I knew I was meeting my kind of people.
How about it: what’s your favorite line?
Up next: Guilty Pleasures