Jan 26 2011
When you’re writing the first line of your story, try to accomplish at least one of the following:
1. Show us something interesting about a major character (ideally the lead protagonist).
- If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway. (Austere Academy).
- There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
- I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. (Notes from the Underground).
- Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting ‘v’ under the more flexible ‘v’ of his mouth. (Maltese Falcon).
2. Set something unusual and interesting in motion. YES: A drug-fueled trip across the desert or an execution by firing squad. NO: Waking up and doing a mundane morning routine.
- 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).
- The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was nobody in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven).
- We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
- It was cold at 6:40 in the morning in Paris and seemed even colder when the man was executed by firing squad. (Day of the Jackal).
3. Establish the setting with a striking detail, ideally one that sets the mood.
- Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. (Silence of the Lambs).
- It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar).
- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer).
- You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Bright Lights, Big City).
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984).
4. Introduce an unusual relationship for the main character (with other characters, himself, his surroundings, and/or the readers).
- All this happened, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-five).
- Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. (The Stranger).
- The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill).
- I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. (Infinite Jest).
5. Introduce problems and/or conflicts.
- A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow).
- Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. (Herbert West, Reanimator).
- Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. (A Frolic of His Own).
- The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. (IT).
6. Subvert expectations and/or set up eye-catching contrasts, like exploding grandmothers.
- High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places).
- It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Crow Road).
- Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
- One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. (The Crying of Lot 49).
What are some of the best opening lines you’ve encountered?