There are a lot of rules in writing. Many of them are dumb, but you should probably learn them before you start ignoring them. Only one space between sentences*, stick with the perspective of one character in 3rd person narration**, and may the Gods have mercy on you if you open a book with a Prologue***. The list goes on forever, and you could spend a lifetime trying to master them and still fall short.
What’s more, you could master all of these rules, only to stand helplessly by as someone succeeds despite—or perhaps because of—breaking them. You, too, could enjoy inexplicable success by flying in the face of everything that is fashionable in modern fiction. Few writing edicts are absolutely inviolable. In fact, the only rule that I can think of that can’t be broken**** is this: Hook them with the opening line.
It’s more than a first impression. It is a starting flag and a pace car. It’s the first thing you say when you’re trying to initiate one of those primitive mating rituals the kids are so into these days*****. The speed and ease through which the reader can pass through your material is largely dictated by those opening words.
It seems unfair that a potentially great piece can live or die in the first few sentences. All of that work you put into your opus, and it’s over before paragraph 2. I get it. Listen, writers: the only thing I’m reasonably certain of after six years of seriously trying to do this: The default state of most people is to not give a shit about your book. If you get somebody to look inside, you need to compel them to keep going.
In that spirit—and because I’m slowly running out blogging ideas—I’ve decided to write a quick list of nothing but opening lines for short stories or novels. Some of them I might use one day, some of them come from others, and some you might be free to use in your own work. I forget which ones are which.
1) And after the rocking ceased, the Chief lit a cigarette******.
2) There’s no doubt about it, “Murder, She Wrote” broke up my marriage*******.
3) I brought the execution order to Mr. Samson. He had no idea that he was the subject of the document.
4) Plenty of people have absorbed an unlucky twin in utero. When mine whispered “Kill them all!” to me one day, I naturally had a few questions.
5) Call me Ishmael********.
6) Shakespeare died, and London held it’s breath. Chaos and destruction had followed him while he was alive, but no one knew what he could do to England from beyond the grave*********.
7) The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
8) It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
9) It was the day my grandmother exploded**********
10) The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us***********.
Some of these I found here. Any good opening lines that I or that last list missed? Anyone out there think a piece can escape without a good opening line? Let me know in the comments.
*I used to think this was really dumb, as it can cause unintentional ambiguity in text, especially if you as the writer are in the habit of using any sort of abbreviations, like for titles. I tried to make #3 an example of this, but it fell apart in that endeavor. I surrender. On this one.
**REALLY dumb. I’ll say pistols at dawn to anyone who wants to come back at me on that one. I may have been listening to too much Hamilton as of late… The rule is still dumb. We’ll talk about it later.
***See the previous footnote.
****Besides they’re/there/their. I’m not an anarchist. Settle down. Then again, if you’re writing in some kind of patois or Winston Groom/Flowers of Algernon intentional incorrectness, all bets are off. Maybe I am an anarchist.
*****Dates? Do kids still call them dates?
******You’re welcome. You know who you are. Both of you. One day it will open a piece. I promise.
*******Courtesy of J. Coplen. Also, I’m officially in danger of finally writing a post with more footnotes than actual post.
********Why is this a good opening line? I’ve never understood that one, but it seemed like I should add it either way. Everyone agrees it is a good line.
*********From what work might this opening line originate? Only time will tell.
**********This opening line is from The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks. Now, I’ve only just now heard this opening line, but I guarantee you it made me want to read the rest of the book. Thus, the power of the opening line.
**********A couple of things about this, the opening line from The Time Machine. First, you have to remember that in 1895 the term “time traveller” wasn’t a thing. Sure, Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, but that book—grand as it is—doesn’t have much of an opening line. Also, Wells gets away with parenthesis, so he’s a man to be respected.