The power of the opening sentence

Booknotes looks at a key ingredient of any piece of writing.

Mike Selby

“It was a dark and stormy night” is generally agreed to be the worst opening sentence in modern fiction. It comes from the novel ‘Paul Clifford,’ written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830. Reviled around the globe for being hackneyed and cliche, one wonders if, instead of being the worst opening line, it is actually one of the best. After all, it is easily recognized two centuries later, even if its source is not (it is incorrectly often attributed to Snoopy). Had he never written it, Bulwer-Lytton would still be known to us, as he also coined “the almighty dollar,” “the great unwashed,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

The first sentence of any work of fiction is always crucial. Often called the ‘hook,’ it needs to not only set the stage for what is to follow, but also spark enough interest to keep readers interested. “Call me Ishmael” are three words which have grabbed people’s attention since 1851. Not James or Charles or Peter. Ishmael was a name that would catch people. The brief sentence is not a command either, but a friendly invitation. Melville sure knew what he was doing.

Good opening sentences will keep people reading; great opening sentences are the ones that stick in the mind. Dickens nailed it with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Jane Austen grabbed readers with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And Hemingway was without peer with his first line: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

“The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain” is how Stephen King opens his book ‘It.’ This one line took him years to come up with. In ‘Needful Things,’ King’s first sentence is the only thing printed on the first page: “You’ve been here before.” These words almost guarantee one will turn the page.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” not only begins ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ but also sums up the entire story. So does Lewis Carroll’s “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do,” as well as Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Of course the greatest opening line in children’s literature has to be “All children, except one, grow up.”

Readers felt they knew what was coming in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ with the straightforward opening “I am an invisible man.” A novel showing what it is like to be African American in the first half of the 20th century, it soon became clear Ellison was describing the invisible feeling all people felt, regardless of race. Hunter Thompson’s famous first line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” prepares the reader for 200 pages of drug use that would have killed normal humans dozens of times.

However great they are, a book can’t stand on its opening sentence alone. All the ones that follow need to keep readers’ eyes glued to the page. But it is that initial line that needs to be especially good. As Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.