In part one of this series, I discussed the pros and cons of insisting on killer opening lines, how it serves the interests of agents and editors more than readers, yet how a strong first line can still lend an air of dignity and confidence to any story.
Today I want to dig into my fourth and final list of Best First Lines, four of them, dedicated to openers that transcend the previous three categories by engaging the reader with more than one of them.
“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
It might not be immediately obvious, but this perennial quotable works as both as character and idea.
I won’t retell the long debate about why Melville’s narrator does not say, more definitively, “My name is Ishmael.” But, there’s a lot in that first sentence about the exploration of the relationship between meaning and text, referent and reference.
“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.” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
This favorite of the Best First Lines lists works as both as engaging setting and engaging idea. Sure, the idea is about the setting, but that’s no disqualifier in my eye. More than that, this line is one of my faves simply because it takes brass eggs to rant on for clause after clause in a single sentence, repeating the same sort of paradox over and over with only commas keeping the reader in line.
Yet, Dickens makes it work. Huzzah!
“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” – Middle Passage by Charles Johnson.
Here’s a triple threat! A first-person narrator gives us a regionally characterized musing on the nature of relationships.
If you can present an engaging character, engaging idea, and engaging setting at once like Johnson does here, and you’ve got a promising future in literature. This is, by far, the first line that most impresses me.
“”The night of my mother’s funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.” – The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes.
I include this opener from the master of Irish suspense hesitantly.
For one thing, it’s technically not the opener of Hughes’s novel, since the author prefaces each “part” of his book with an unnumbered section entitled “Blood” and the line I’ve quoted is the first line of Part One, Chapter One. The actual first line is far less unique: “The last time, they’d pressed the sharpened points of their sheath knives into the flesh of their thumbs, and let their blood mingle, and smeared it on each other’s foreheads till it looked like burning embers.”
The rest of these “Blood” inter-chapter kibbles are equally over-the-top; the book would be better without them, and much better starting with the sentence I’ve quoted above. So, this first line is a double lesson. First, it provides a positive example of setting, character, and conflict all wrapped up in an unexpected event. Second, since Hughes failed to put it up front, it provides a negative example of a writer not recognizing his own strength.
Listen to your critics, your editors, your fans, and your foes. Someone might have told Hughes to ditch the wrong kind of “Blood” in The Wrong Kind of Blood.