As a writer, I labor over that opening sentence, changing words here, moving phrases there, trying to hit the perfect tone. But when I try to think of other writers’ opening remarks, I can’t. The only two I remember are “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “Call me Ishmael,” mainly because those show up on Jeopardy from time to time. I decide which books to read mainly through skimming the back covers or getting recommendations from friends. Once I actually open a book to that first page, I’m already committed to reading it and jump right in, reading nonstop without pausing to admire, or even critique, that first sentence.
Since I don’t have any favorite first lines, I decided to create a sampling from my bookcase. I pulled an armful of books, most of which I haven’t read, and studied the first sentences. Some were okay, some had potential but needed the help of the second sentence, and some really grabbed my attention. If I were selecting which books to read based solely on their opening lines, these three would be with me at the checkout line:
I scream, You Scream
“From the day I could hold a crayon in my chubby little hands, I have colored inside the lines.”
That one simple sentence says so much about the main character. She’s the type who has spent her life following the rules, and I have to wonder what problem she’ll encounter that will challenge that. It’s also clear from the tone that this book will be light and funny.
“If I hadn’t been drinking champagne at noon on Friday, I would have been over at the honey house with Manny Chapman, my beekeeping mentor and owner of Queen Bee Honey, and possibly, just possibly, I might have saved him from what must have been a very painful death.”
Okay, so this sentence is a bit long, which makes it possible to squeeze in a lot of information, but all that information leads to a slew of questions that I want answered. Why was she drinking champagne, a rather unusual drink, especially at noon? What sort of painful death did Manny suffer? Was he stung to death, murdered, or both? Would the protagonist have been a potential victim if she’d been with Manny rather than sipping that champagne?
The Maze Runner
“He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.”
Again, this opening sentence begs to be questioned. If the main character is standing, then his new life must begin as someone older than a newborn. But why does his new life begin in such hostile surroundings? Has he been kidnapped? Does he remember his old life at all? How did he end up here?
For me, the best openers create questions that I want to know the answers to. And a good book is one that answers those questions and entertains me along the way.