It’s the stuff of literary legend and as elusive as a yeti: the perfect opening line. Writers often struggle for months to craft that perfect string of words, that crucial hook on which a story succeeds or fails. But does it really? A look at some great books shows that the best is sometimes saved for last.
As with so many legends, the opening line’s near-mythic importance has grown well beyond reality. An Internet search for best opening lines turns up countless top 10 lists, and even experienced writers can fall prey to the fable. A recent Globe and Mail article reveals that, to many, ?no line counts more than the first.?
There’s no denying that between Jane Austen’s truths universally acknowledged and Daphne du Maurier’s dreams of Manderley, many writers have created opening lines that reverberate with wit and energy and mystery. Sentences that grab us in as few as three words (?Call me Ishmael?) and overflow with the promise that the book goes on to fulfil.
Yet some of the most powerful novels ever written begin with plain vanilla sentences?sentences that are dull and pedestrian enough to come straight out of a grade school reader.
Like the opening to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: ?The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.? Interesting, sure (what’s he doing by a lagoon?), but it hardly blinds the reader with a stroke of literary brilliance. It could as easily be the opening to a story about a boy on a dull summer vacation instead of a primal struggle for survival.
Then there’s the opening line in Of Mice and Men, a spare, compact novel That’s a rich study of human nature. If it were true that ?no line counts more than the first,? Steinbeck’s gem should never have become a classic after this intro: ?A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.?
The problem, of course, has nothing to do with those opening lines themselves. It has to do with the unrealistic expectations we place on them. By perpetuating the cult of the perfect opening, readers and writers alike do themselves a disservice. Impatient, we skim the first words, maybe the first paragraph. If it doesn’t immediately grab us, we set the book aside. We don’t dig deeper to find the gems that might be waiting behind the mundane front door.
The gems aren’t always there, of course. And a few pages are usually enough to decide whether to move on to the next book in the pile.
But if millions of readers had left that boy on the beach, if they’d decided that Golding’s first line didn’t meet some magical, mythical standard, they might never have come to know that ?Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.?
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).