Stephen King dissects his favorite opening line from literature:
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war — they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
This is what happened.
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.
A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.
Joe Fassler collected the favorite first lines of nearly two dozen authors here. Jonathan Franzen’s pick:
Someone must have slandered Josef K., because one morning, without his having done anything bad, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (Franzen’s translation)
The method of the whole novel is here in a nutshell. You think you’re being introduced to the persecution of an innocent man, but if you read the chapter that follows carefully, you see that Josef K. is in fact doing all sorts of bad things in his life. If you then go back and reread the first sentence, it becomes significant that the very first impulse of the narrator (who is aligned with Josef K.’s point of view) is to blame somebody else.
For a contrast, check out the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which rewards horrendous first sentences. This year’s winner:
She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.