The modern American reading public has the collective attention span of a stressed-out, sleep-deprived gnat with ADD. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe. English teachers, editors and published writers all seem to tell aspiring writers every day that they’ve got to hook readers with the first line or they’ll lose them. Disgusted editors, they are told, will fling their manuscripts disdainfully into the slush pile if they’re not captivated by the opening lines. As a member of the reading public, I find these assumptions vaguely insulting.
And a little true – though I tend to give an author a few paragraphs or pages before I make any summary judgments about his or her skill. So I don’t require that a “hook” be buried in that first line to keep me engaged. But I have to admit, I love a good opener.
So here are a few of my favorite first lines from my two favorite genres, science fiction and horror. Not only are these intriguing sentences, but each begins a book that I would highly recommend reading. See what you think:“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”” The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien (Okay I know this is two sentences but it could have been one and it’s one of my favorite openers.) “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson “The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams (Two sentences again, I know. But it’s my list and I can cheat if I want to.) “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury “My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I’m not sure you should care who I am or that I exist.” Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz “Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.” Night Watch, Terry Pratchett “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” IT, Stephen King “The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.” The Princess Bride, William Goldman “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” War of the Worlds, HG Wells “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.” Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams (Nobody opened a story like Douglas Adams.)