From time to time, a literary editor has invited a contributor to identify the most memorable first lines in fiction, and to say why they were so effective.
The results have premised a fallacy and fertilised much misunderstanding.
The fallacy follows the pattern: This is a horse, and this horse is brown; therefore all horses are brown.
The literary version underpins the advice, widely shared, that storytellers should contrive enticing openings.
Here’s an example from the author, editor and writing coach Keidi Keating:
A relevant search will turn up plenty more.
What’s scarce is advice to the contrary: that the opening lines of your story or novel do not need to be very engaging.
The contrary approach fits as well with the facts. Many celebrated works of fiction open in ways that do little to hold hostage a reader’s attention. Here are 10 examples.
1. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
No points for guessing that The Lord Of The Rings opens this way. The line disappointed 10-year-old me when I began on the first single-volume edition. The name Bilbo Baggins suggested a bore, and no centenarian’s party could be exciting to read about.
I’d been engaged by the magnificent cover, and my having received the book as a Christmas gift from my parents. Abandoning Chapter One, I began on Chapter Two and fell under Tolkien’s spell.
2. I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
Two dashes, a colon and a semi-colon, interspersed with five commas. No tutor in creative writing could commend such an opening structure. And yet subsequent Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s forbidding gateway to The Adventures of Augie March led almost immediately to a National Book Award, for a novel since rated among the 100 best written in English.
3. When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.
No hook, no suspense, no action but for the unveiling of something mundane. What we get instead from the opening of Brideshead Revisited is a writerly rhythm, a melancholy mood, and an intuition that the author might sustain both. These were enough to draw readers into a novel since named among the 100 best ever.
4. My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.
It is easy to imagine even a high-school English teacher rolling his eyes at such an offering from a pupil: “You need to do more than just state your narrator’s name and occupation. Good writers make their first lines compelling!” Yet for the very many readers it introduced to Ford’s work, this banal opening was compelling enough.
5. The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes ….
The ellipsis ends the opening paragraph of Justine, first of the four linked novels that comprise The Alexandria Quartet. Like Evelyn Waugh’s opening for Brideshead, this one encourages the reader to form a positive opinion about the author’s abilities – or perhaps more accurately in this case, his ambitions. What the hell are the great planes that the wind ransacks?
A tutor might tell a Lawrence Durrell imitator that even if he wanted to waste readers’ time he shouldn’t do so this early. And yet readers forgave Durrell, and critics would rank the Quartet among the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.
6. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
Scott Fitzgerald opened The Great Gatsby this way, and has been praised for so doing. To my ear the narrative voice, to this point, is the voice of a fusty memoirist, and what’s more one who will moralise.
7. “What did you make of the new couple?”
The Hanemas, Piet and Angela, were undressing. Their bedchamber was a low-ceilinged colonial room whose woodwork was painted the shade of off-white commercially called eggshell. A spring midnight pressed on the cold windows.
Couples put John Updike on the cover of Time and quickly made him a millionaire. There is some titillation in the fly-on-a-wall view of a marital bedroom, and I won’t argue that this is a poor opening. I will content myself with proposing that it is not obviously a million-dollar opening.
8. The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the road led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes.
Thus did Anthony Powell open A Dance To The Music of Time, a 12-volume masterwork that has been ranked among the 50 best English language novels of the 20th Century. I read on only because a friend had recommended the series.
9. Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
This sentence has been ranked among the very finest to have introduced a novel. It didn’t engage me when I followed the recommendation of my school-age daughter and began on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You get a strong whiff of stuffiness and rigidity, and it’s not obvious why that would entice. J.K. Rowling hoped that readers would look past her opening.
10. He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.
Did you guess this was Hemingway? For Whom the Bell Tolls was a popular and critical success immediately upon its publication in 1940, and yet its opening relies solely on its presenting to the reader an original and confident narrative voice.
Can we conclude anything from these 10 examples taken together? I’ll hazard the suggestion that what draws people into a story is mainly the charm of the narrative voice. And I’ll observe that a novel can succeed even if the charm does not reveal itself right away.
Arguments to the contrary are welcome in comments.