Great journeys through a book begin, oddly enough, with the beginning.
July 19, 2013
I have always believed that a novel is only as good as its first sentence. I realize that there have been great novels who rise above the opening line. But for me, it’s all about grabbing me with those first few words. Otherwise, the author has lost me.
That first sentence is the hook, and if it doesn’t reel me in, then I’ll never read the novel no matter how good it may be or how many five-star reviews it has received.
It establishes a tone.
It sets a mood.
I either want to read on or push the novel aside. Authors can’t afford to have their novels set aside.
They have to open with the best line they can conjure up from the depths of their imagination.
Something that says this book is worth your time. If you think the first sentence is good, just wait until you read the last one.
More and more, I am gaining a fascination for science fiction. I don’t mean Battlestar Gallactica or rocket ship warfare in another galaxy. I’m talking about Ray Bradbury’s style of science fiction: great stories about intriguing characters that happen to be set in a future or a different time.
And here are some of the best opening lines I have found in the genre:
I’ll open with Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury himself: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
That’s good enough.
But his next two sentences reveal what great writing is all about: It was a special pleasure to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.
I can see the fire.
I can taste the kerosene.
I feel the loss of history’s loss.
I grieve the burning of the books.
Other opening lines have their own impact with our psyche and imagination.
In his ground-breaking and controversial novel 1984, the legendary George Orwell struck an immediate and disruptive chord when he wrote: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
From Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross: “Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the final extinction of my One True Love, as close as I can date it.”
From Neuromancer by William Gibson: “The Sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
From The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod: “He woke, and remembered dying.”
From Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow: “I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society; to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.”
From Hyperion by Dan Simmons: The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.”
From The Soulkeepers by G. P. Ching: “Death lived up to Jacob’s expectations.”
From Axis by Robert Charles Wilson: “In the summer of his twelfth year – the summer the stars began to fall from the sky – the boy Isaac discovered that he could tell East from West with his eyes closed.”
From Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon: “At the end, the bottom, the very worst of it, with the world afire and hell’s flamewinged angels calling him by name, Lee Crane blamed himself.”
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”
From A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge: “The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.”
Great openings take you the by the hand and lead you into the book.
Great writing convinces you to continue the journey.
Great characters make the trip worthwhile.
A great ending makes you glad you took the trip and wonder what else the author has in store for you.
It all begins, oddly enough, with the beginning.
Which first lines, in any genre, have grabbed your attention and captivated your imagination, encouraging to read on because you won’t believe what’s going to happen next.