“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Those remarkable opening lines: so iconic that they transcend the books to which they belong and become cultural touchstones in their own right.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were all striking thirteen.
There are some establishing sentences that say so much, that speak such volumes, you cannot help but follow them on into the books they begin, and even before you do, you know the journey will leave you a changed person. They are like the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5: comparatively few people know the entire symphony by heart — but everyone, everyone, knows those first four notes.
The opening lines above are among the most famous in literature; here are a few of my own favorites, drawn from books I dearly love.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
All this happened, more or less.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
It is cold. See the snow. See the snow come down.
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm.
And my number one favorite of all time, from my favorite book of all time:
(These magnificent opening lines are drawn from: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King; Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis; Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik; The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman; and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson.)
I once took an entire screenwriting course dedicated solely to the first page of the script. “That one page,” our teacher taught us, “is more important than the other 119 put together.” One screenplay page roughly equals the first sixty seconds of screen time. The reader takes in sixty seconds’ worth — and your potential film has already pretty much been thumbs-upped or thumbs-downed.
It’s the first impression a customer gets when she walks into your store. The first bite of a meal matters. (There’s a reason fine restaurants invest energy in that amuse-bouche.) The first infinitesimal, almost undetectable movements of the ballet dancer’s fingertips that transition him from motionless pose to full-on dance.
It’s not just that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s that the first movement, taste, sentence, intentionally or not, stands in a unique position to communicate the whole. People may not judge a book by its cover, but they will get an indelible impression from that opening line.
If you do any public speaking, here is one of the very best pieces of public-speaking advice I’ve ever received: Don’t waste your first few words. Whether from nervousness or simple lack of planning, most public speakers squander their opening seconds on pointless posturing and empty clichés.
“Am I on?” [taps the microphone] “Can everyone hear okay? Hey, what a great-looking group! And how about that introduction? Thanks so much for inviting me here…”
And that’s a wrap: hand us a toe tag. Like a brand new car, your talk just lost half its value the moment you drove it off the lot and is good as DOA. You’re less than sixty seconds in — and you’ve already lost the best and brightest chance you’ll get to engage your audience and have a positive impact.
This is why I have made a practice of being acutely aware of and intentional about the first thoughts I let rattle around in my head when I wake up each morning. Those opening thoughts will tend to shape and color the whole day. (I also pay close attention to the first words I utter out loud, for the same reason.)
In books (and films), my favorite first lines are those that hint at the whole book, that hold its entire plot and message in microcosm.
Here are a few first lines of books I’ve written in which I attempted to pour the essence of the book’s entirety, the hope being that as you work your way through, that opening line will have more and more resonance.
Before we get started, let’s put this one right out on the table: I talk funny.
— Funny Side Up, with Rita Davenport
Alcoholism is a progressive disease.
— I Should Be Dead, with Bob Beckel
Every culture has its rites of passage.
— The Red Circle, with Brandon Webb
I have an unusual relationship with death.
— The Killing School, with Brandon Webb
Staring through my scope at the man in my crosshairs, I take a slow breath.
— Total Focus, with Brandon Webb
Something gave Dale Morgen a big idea.
— Flash Foresight, with Daniel Burrus
Jackson Hill looked like a man waiting to see the executioner.
— The Go-Giver Influencer, with Bob Burg
The “first line,” mind you, is not always literally the first line that appears in the book. Often there’s an introduction, or foreword, or both, or Author’s Note, that physically comes first — but it was written later. That material is all preliminary, not the real starting point. The foreword, introduction, opening epigraph, etc., these are all vignettes of the runners, poised tense and motionless, at the starting line. The first line is the pistol shot you hear as they burst into action and begin the race.
Normally this is the first line of chapter 1. But there are odd exceptions. Here’s my opening of chapter 1 of Among Heroes:
It was still early, maybe one o’clock in the afternoon, and already creeping into the low nineties. It would get hotter still, we knew that for certain. Late spring in California’s Central Valley, dry and brown, a clear day, the barometer high and steady, but to us the atmospheric pressure felt like roughly ten thousand pounds per square inch.
As opening paragraphs go, it’s not bad, and it’s a very solid way for the reader to catch that first hit of what’s to come. (Perhaps you can tell: I happened to be reading a Jack Reacher book when I wrote that. L, as they say, OL.) But that isn’t how the book originally opened, and it’s not the first line I wrote. The first line I wrote was the first line of what I thought was going to be chapter 1, but eventually turned out to be chapter 6, and it went like this:
The first time I saw Glen Doherty, he was relaxing in a parked Humvee reading a book, and I was on the edge of physical collapse.
That was the sentence that came to me first, the sentence that, in my mind, set up the whole book.
Because it’s not just that the opening line brings the reader into the story — it’s also a line that first brings the writer into the story. John Irving famously starts his writing process with the book’s last sentence, and the rest of the story comes from there; it’s also where he finds its title. For Irving, the last line is the first line.
I don’t know where other writers find their first lines, but I find mine bubbling up out of the morning pond’s stillness. I described this recently in another post: First thing in the morning, I make a cup of hot tea and sit in my favorite stuffed chair with pen and blank pad of paper.
Sitting at the edge of the pond, waiting for the first nibble — the tug on the line that gives me clues to what the rest of the story looks and sounds and feels like.
Someone asked, So how does that work, exactly?
Here’s how I think it happens:
I think the whole book is already there, first. Before I even sit down. Before I even wake up that morning. Not fully formed, not in every word and phrase and event and plot twist, and not lying out in the open where anyone could see it — but unformed, inchoate, a mass of shapes and ideas, the feeling of the whole book, submerged beneath the surface of the early-morning water.
Possibly in that duck pond, out at the back of the farm.
The opening line is that first little ripple on the water’s glassy surface, the initiating disturbance as a story tendril takes fish form and leaps up at a bug making a lazy overhead pass.
The first line is a hint — a ten-months-pregnant, uncannily accurate hint — of all that lies in wait in the green mossy depths of the story itself.
Sitting quietly in my chair, hot tea and blank pad at hand, eyes closed, waiting by the pond’s edge for that first ripple.
Waiting. Knowing it’s down there.
It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
P.S. In case you’re wondering where those first few opening lines came from, they sprang from the pond-minds of: Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities); Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis); Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina); and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four). And in case you’re curious about that most famous of famous opening lines, here is the whole first sentence of the Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Photo of Leg of Mutton Pond, Bushy Park (London) taken on Oct 10, 2016 © by Colin Evans. Used with permission of the photographer.