What Makes a Great Opening Line?

Allegra Hyde Considers Love at First Sentence

Maybe it has happened to you: a stranger catches your eye while you peruse the plant identification section of the library, or wander a mossy hillock speckled with Amanita bisporigera, or shuffle along in the funeral procession for your wealthy Aunt Tabitha. The look squeezes a secret place inside you, sets your heart racing—in fear or excitement, you can’t quite tell. Call this kismet. Call it chemistry. Despite all that remains unknown (and that could go wrong), you feel compelled to see where the connection might lead. You know it could change the course of your life.

I say this as a romantic—and as a human who reads and writes fiction. Because the spark of connection can happen on the page in the same way it can in the real world. A great first line can spur intense readerly attraction—provoke a compulsion to know more. Let’s call this: love at first sentence.

Such a reading experience is also a rare one, however. Just as it is easy to encounter most strangers and remain unmoved—so is it easy to not read most works of literature. The world is full of people we will never know and fiction we will never read. It takes something special for a first line to capture the heart of a reader—to propel a text out of a slush pile or off a bookshop shelf—for a work of literature to transform from stranger to intimate.

What is that something, exactly? I started pondering this question in earnest last summer, after signing on to teach a class about fiction’s first lines. To “research” in preparation for the class, I decided to ask around—to ask strangers, specifically, in the spirit of love at first sentence. And so, to the people of Twitter, I posed: “What are your favorite first lines in literature?”

The people of Twitter had plenty to say. From my initial post, a long thread of first lines unfurled, as readers and writers of fiction shared first sentences that had lodged in their brains and stuck. The openers came from a breadth of genres and in all syntactical varieties. There were first lines from odd realist novels, such as:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

And there were openings from speculative short stories:

Seven corporations control the afterlife now, and many people spend their lives amassing the money to upload into the best.
–Louise Erdrich, “Domain”

There were long opening sentences, such as:

Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house, the only difference being that the dealers in the one drug house were also the users and so more unpredictable, and in the other the dealers were never the users and so more shrewd—back in those days, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment so subpar that we woke up with flattened cockroaches in our bedsheets, sometimes three or four stuck on our elbows, and once I found fourteen of them pressed to my calves, and there was no beauty in shaking them off, though we strove for grace, swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas.
–Jenny Zhang, “We Love You Crispina”

There were short, punchy openers like:

Mother died today.
–Albert Camus, The Stranger

 As well as:

They shoot the white girl first.
–Toni Morrison, Paradise

Several of Morrison’s opening lines were highlighted again and again. Other frequent repeats included:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
–Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 And:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

–Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House

Then there was fan favorite:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
–Donna Tartt, The Secret History

The responses to my Twitter inquiry crystallized a nascent theory I’d been formulating about what made certain first lines memorable and propulsive—because, although the sentences came in all varieties, a pattern emerged. Nearly all the favorite first lines gave readers an elegantly balanced dose of clarity and curiosity. Or to put this another way: seductive first sentences ground a reader in a situation, while also prompting a question in the reader’s mind that propels them forward in the text.

This might seem simple from the outset, but clarity and curiosity can be at odds with one another if not calibrated carefully; too much of one attribute can overwhelm the other, diminishing the overall power of the first sentence.

But let’s define these terms more thoroughly before going any further. By “clarity,” I mean the ability of a first sentence to give readers an initial hand-hold for place and/or time and/or character and/or plot. Clarity is essential for a first sentence because, at the start of a story or novel—barring whatever information a reader might have encountered on the jacket copy or in reviews—the reader’s mental theater is a void. An unlit stage. A nothingness. Every word in that first sentence is an opportunity to shine a light on what is to come—to give a reader enough information to stabilize them in some degree of who and where and what the story is about. Returning to Nell Zink’s opener for Wallcreeper, we see a beautiful example of clarity in action:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

This sentence tells readers that the novel features a first-person narrator who has some kind of relationship with person named Stephen, and that the pair is traveling, and that the accident of the miscarriage has occurred because of Stephen’s driving. This is an astonishing amount of context to be delivered in the space of a short sentence. Few readers would get entangled in Zink’s syntax, moreover, despite the unexpected place the sentence ends up. Though there are unknowns in the opener, there are not abstractions—which would have been the case if the sentence wasn’t diligently specific.

Is it possible for a sentence to be overly clear—too contextualized? Absolutely. We’ve all read sentences so freighted with detail that narrative momentum comes to a standstill. Just as the thrill love at first sight necessitates a degree of mystique, so does a compelling first sentence require certain gaps in information. Something has to remain unanswered, unexplained, unresolved—because therein lies the special chemistry between clarity and curiosity. We need to know enough to wonder more.

What invokes curiosity in a reader, and thereby keeps them reading? In my opinion: weirdness, conflict, tragedy, mystery, the supernatural, any whiff of struggle, or something being slightly off. Reading Zink’s first sentence for Wallcreeper, I found myself wondering big questions like: Why did Stephen swerve? What happened next? Where were these people going and why? But I also found the narrator’s tone to be a little odd. The word “occasioned” is an unusual verb, suggesting a distinctive attitude. This diction made me willing—no, eager—to read more.

Reviewing Twitter’s favorite first lines, I was struck by another commonality, housed under the umbrella of clarity and curiosity. Maybe you have already noticed from the examples given in this essay—but it seems that many iconic first sentences mention death. Though at first I found the ubiquity of death in people’s favorite fiction openers a touch disturbing, upon reflection this commonality made perfect sense. In all these sentences, death is presented alongside some mention of time; time and death, one could argue, are clarity and curiosity pushed toward a logical end point. Information about time offers readers a sense of clarity by indicating the temporal architecture of a story. And the mention of death—the greatest unknown—makes us curious, which generates narrative momentum. Just look at Toni Morrison’s first line from Paradise:

They shoot the white girl first.

Someone is shot (death) and we are offered an order of events (time).

These two components can be observed once again in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

There is a firing squad (death), which makes Colonel Aureliano remember what happened in the past (time).

Death and time also appear in Louise Erdrich’s “Domain”:

Seven corporations control the afterlife now, and many people spend their lives amassing the money to upload into the best.

Erdrich opens with a speculative technology relating to the afterlife (death) and there is a reference to how people spend their lives (time).

Finally, death and time are fused into an irresistible package in Donna Tartt’s opener from The Secret History:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

In this first line, Bunny has died (death) and weeks have passed before anyone realizes (time). The sentence is at once straightforward and provocative. Readers are given a sense of setting, of conflict, and of the parties involved, yet they are also left with questions like: How did Bunny die? Why is the situation grave? Who is telling this story? Who is we?

In case you don’t quite believe that death and (at least a whiff of) time make frequent appearances in many seductive first lines, here are a few more from my Twitter inquiry and beyond:

Nobody died that year.
–Renata Adler, Speedboat

I was not sorry when my brother died.
–Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
–William Gibson, Neuromancer 

A dead man twists around one of my Doric columns.
–Diane Cook, “Bounty”

I like to think I know what death is.
–Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

They were married on the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, which no one gave much thought to in all the months of planning, until the bride’s deceased father-in-law showed up in the car following the ceremony.
–Natalie Sylvester, Everyone Knows You Go Home

On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.
–Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger

I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.
–Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

 Of course, death and time are not absolutely imperative for every memorable first line. Many would call Jane Austen’s aphoristic opener to Pride and Prejudice the most famous first line in the English-language, and it contains no explicit mention of death:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. 

Though I could make the case that being “in possession of a good fortune” implies that someone has died so that the single man could inherit a fortune, what is more important here is that the clarity/curiosity principle holds true. Austen gives readers a seemingly straightforward truism that grounds readers in the themes of the novel to come, while also adding a provocative tinge of irony with the phrase “universally acknowledged.” Her calibration of clarity and curiosity is impeccable and indelible.

Slightly ironic truisms are one approach to first sentences, but there are many other ways of engaging readers while still balancing the aforementioned attributes. Take these openers, which are all in the form of a direct address:

Open the cabinet.
–Nina MacLaughlin, Wake, Siren

See the child.
–Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Call me Ishmael.
–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

In these sentences, readers are given the hint of a situation and the intriguing zing of an instruction. As readers, we visualize a piece of furniture, a child, or a person named Ishmael—while also wondering why we’re being told what we are. There is a flirty confidence to these lines and the way they demand engagement, hustling us into the narrative ahead.

Then there works of fiction that coax readers forward with a question:

Why is the measure of love loss?
–Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
–Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Curiosity is made explicit in these examples, since a question begs an answer. Meanwhile clarity, in Winterson’s opener, comes via the expression of theme—just like in Austen’s first line to Pride and Prejudice. Burgess’s opener is admittedly abstract—especially given the ambiguity of “it”—but one could argue that the colloquial tone of the question, the vaguely intimidating nudge-nudge vibe, offers contextual orientation that makes sense for A Clockwork Orange. Readers get a sense of what they’re in for.

The first line of A Clockwork Orange is also an example of starting with dialogue, which is one of the most challenging ways to begin a story or novel. This is because, in the informational void that is the beginning of any work of fiction, dialogue can be difficult to place—it’s a sound vibrating through the ether—thereby making clarity more difficult to achieve. I am certainly not the first writer to raise this point; Ann Hood cautions against starting with dialogue in her wonderful essay “Beginnings,” which appears in The Writer’s Notebook II from Tin House. To pull off such an opener, according to Hood: “The dialogue must be compelling enough to draw the reader in before he or she knows anything about the character(s) speaking or the context in which the dialogue is taking place.” I would add that having a dialogue tag spill into scene can help ground a reader in place, time, character, and other contextual essentials. Here are two examples of approaching dialogue this way:

“Pink is the color for girls,” Kiera says, so she and Ava cut their palms and let their blood drip into a shallow bowl filled with milk, watching the color spread slowly on the surface, small red flowers blooming.
–Dantiel W. Moniz, “Milk Blood Heat”

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
–E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Both Moniz’s and White’s openers give readers the contextual handholds necessary to stabilize readers in a scene, and throw open the door to intrigue. These sentences show, once again, that the form or style of a first line is less important than how the author generates an alchemic blend of clarity and curiosity. After all, though Moniz’s and White’s lines both gesture towards physical violence and the specter of suffering, a first line can also dazzle simply for being funny. Take these examples, which ground a reader in a situation, while zooming forward on comedic momentum:

Dad thought himself a good-looking man.
–Souvankham Thammavongsa, “Good-Looking”

My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge.
–Ottessa Moshfegh, “Bettering Myself”

Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.
–Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuy.
–Ha Jin, Waiting

Other well-loved first sentences use oddness as a springboard for curiosity—giving readers just enough clarity to keep them engaged. Sentences like:

A screaming comes across the sky.
–Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I lost an arm on my last trip home.
–Octavia Butler, Kindred

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
–George Orwell, 1984

In a labor camp, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, a laborer swallowed his passport and turned into a passport.
–Deepack Unnikrishnan, “Gulf Return”

My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them.
–Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida

Nothing moved except the mirage.
–Adania Shibli, Minor Detail

In an ideal world we would have been orphans.
–Miranda July, “Something That Needs Nothing”

Then there are first sentences that are simply disarmingly congenial:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie,’ which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
–Haruki Murakami, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

What I am getting at here, at the end of this essay, is that love at first sentence is a wide open field. There are many kinds of sentences—just like there are many kinds of people—that might beguile you if they present the right blend of clarity and curiosity, perceptibility and mystery. There may be certain sentences that catch more eyes—sentences featuring death and time, in particular—but ultimately (and apologies for the cliché) beauty is the eye of the beholder. What is important, in the end, is that the right first sentence finds the right reader. Because what is a sentence if not one step in an ongoing series of steps? And what is a relationship except one moment of connection followed by another, and then another—as long as the connection lasts? In the case of fiction, this is a relationship that hopefully extends all the way from cover to cover.

_________________________________________________

Allegra Hyde’s novel Eleutheria is available now via Vintage.

Allegra Hyde
Allegra Hyde
Allegra Hyde’s debut story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, The Best Small Fictions, and The Best American Travel Writing. Her debut novel, Eleutheria, published in March 2022. Originally from New Hampshire, she currently lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.





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