Do opening lines matter and what are some of the best ones?
I don't think you need to grab a reader with the very first sentence. At least, as a reader of paper books I can't imagine going to a book shop or library, selecting a volume, bringing it home, lighting a lamp, making a cup of tea and opening the book . . . then packing it in at the first full stop if I wasn't swept away. I can imagine that reading off a screen might be different, since we've trained ourselves to tune out stuff on screens in case we go barking mad from the overload. (Readers of e-books, I'd love to know.) In short, two ropey paragraphs on page one might make me close a book and look over at the TBR pile, but not an unspectacular first sentence, no.
As to my favourites: this got me thinking. I've got five platinum-plated, tip-top favourite books, the books that made me a writer - I'm sure I must have mentioned them here before - and pondering this question I realised that I think I know all the first sentences. They're mostly short and they're all pretty great.
Here goes. (You need to trust that I'm not looking.)
1. Gone With The Wind: Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful.
2. Catch-22: It was love at first sight.
3. I Capture The Castle: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
4. The Water-method Man: Her gynaecologist recommended him to me.
5. Pride and Prejudice - all together now - It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
How'd I do?
5 is word perfect but I missed a comma. 4 is word perfect and John Irving spells gynaecologist like me! 3 Nailed it. 2 Nailed it. 1 Slightly failed because that's just the first clause and the sentence goes on ", but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."
I'm setting P&P aside because genius isn't helpful here - but the other four all have something in common, I think. They all make you want to read the second sentence. They've all got a 'Huh?" in them. You're in a sink? Whose gynaecologist? Someone's falling in love! (Yossarian and the chaplain, I'll grant you. But still.) Who's this Scarlet O'Hara then?
So then I got to wondering if the first words I read by my favourite living writers were also short, grabby little gems.
My first Joyce Carol Oates novel was Middle Age. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop on my first trip to the US and I thought I'd discovered an obscure writer who I happened to quite like and - who knows - might have written another one. Its opening sentence is "Is this fair?"
Bingo. No one could read those three words and stop.
My first Stephen King was Salem's Lot and I'm still shaking (He was upstairs. Brrr.) Its opening sentence is "Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son." And there goes another short-lived theory. I'm not sure that sentence would necessarily pull me onto the next one. But something did.