By Lois E. Huffman, Ph.D. and Mia N. Small
“I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ but did you know the entire first line for A Tale of Two Cities is much longer? The first sentence in the book is a whopping 119 words.
On the other hand, Fahrenheit 451 opens with an easy to remember one-liner: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’”
Which of the famous books with compelling first lines have you read? Did all of them live up to the promise of their opening sentence? In case your favorite opener didn’t make the Scribendi infographic, check out the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines From Novels and The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction from Gawker Review of Books.
Depending on the work, “a great first line can be funny or meaningful or sad or somehow all of the above. Some great lines are flowery and beautiful, while others are direct and to the point.” (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/15-of-the-best-opening-lines-in-ya/)
Master horror writer Stephen King, who has spent months or even years crafting an opening sentence, believes it “should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-stephen-king-spends-months-and-even-years-writing-opening-sentences/278043/)
Below are the opening lines from books that have stuck in our minds.* Can you identify the source of each quotation? (We’ve included a key at the end of this post. No peeking!)
- “At dusk, they pour from the sky.”
- “At night, I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”
- “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”
- “First the colors.”
- “In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.”
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
- “There was a time, not very long ago, in the desperately poor New York City neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, when the streets would turn into ghost towns at dusk.”
How might you use memorable first lines to promote students’ reading, writing, listening, and speaking? We will explore some teaching ideas for this in Part Two.
1) All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 2) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd 3) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 4) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 5) Sula by Toni Morrison 6) Book of John in The Bible (New American Standard) 7) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
*These openers are not intended to be representative of the diversity of fiction and nonfiction books in our country today. This short list just includes books that popped into our heads after seeing the infographic mentioned at the outset of this post.