Readers offer their own nominees of the best and worst book openers:
My wife consumes books like no person I have ever met. At times she will share with me opening lines that she knows I may find interesting. One such line is from a book by Toni Morrison, Paradise, and it has stuck with me for a long time:
“They shoot the white girl first.”
Six words – none longer than five letters – that set a scene loaded with tension. The author has already brought us violence and racial issues and possibly gender- and/or sex-related plot lines. How could you not read on?
You mentioned the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad first lines of novels, but you should also know about this spinoff contest, for bad first lines of novels, which tend to be much funnier. This year’s winner: “The men greeted each other, wearing various smiles on their faces.” My favorite from this year: “‘BOOM!’ said the bomb very loudly.” Another fave from an earlier contest: “In anticipation, John licked his own lips.”
A compilation of other candidates from readers:
“I am a sick man … I am a wicked man,”
– Notes From The Undergound, Dostoevsky.
The ellipsis alone offers so much insight into the character of the narrator: his self-consciousness as a writer, his awareness of the judgments of others (who will be quick to correct him if he does not correct himself), his insecurity, his brutal honesty.
“He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad,” – Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini.
“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know,” – The Stranger, Camus.
“Call me Ishmael”- Moby Dick, Melville.
From that single, simple point of information a complex world of meaning and parable spreads open.
“A screaming comes across the sky,” – Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon.
You know that this is going to be a hairy ride.
The author of that sentence, one Clive Staples Lewis, must have enjoyed writing that.
You missed the best opportunity ever to loop a post full circle by neglecting one of the best opening lines of all time by the man himself:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” Dark Tower, Stephen King.
For a guy obsessed with an opening sentence, he laid down one helluva one. And he knows it (as obsessive Dark Tower readers will know).
One more completes the short thread:
For my money, the best first line of a story was for one never written. On an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, Lou Grant is explaining to Mary how to write the lead in a good story, and he gives this as an example: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots slammed into my gut, and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.”
Readers are also offering suggestions over at our Facebook page.