One Bookshelf’s Top Ten Opening Lines

Julia Konwick ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
What the teachers said about writing essays in high school is true. Okay, not everything is true; if it was, no academic essay would ever be worth reading. However, what they said about opening lines is true –an opening line needs to grab a reader’s attention, otherwise very few people will care about the rest of the essay. The same holds true for literature. Many people will read the first couple of lines of a book in the bookstore to help them decide whether or not it’s worth their time. If it hasn’t captured their interest by the end of the first paragraph, they put it back on the shelf and move on.
With so much pressure put on the beginning of a book, there are several strategies writers will use to make readers pay attention. They try to reel them in with humor, shock and awe, poignancy, or inspiration. While all of these have proved effective, some do better than others. So how can a good opening line be distinguished from a bad one? There’s really no definitive science because personal taste is usually the deciding factor in this matter. However, what often hooks readers is something that catches them off guard and also makes them laugh. That being said, here is a list of top ten opening lines. From the bottom:

10. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

pride and prejudice
While not particularly shocking, this opening appears on many Top Ten Openers lists, and for a good reason. A lot of credit must be given to Austen here because in just this sentence alone she gives so much information about the book. Not only does she reveal that her novel is going to involve a wealthy young man and his search for a bride, she also clearly creates the mindset of the society she has made, and simultaneously establishes the attitude and opinion her main character has about this mindset without even mentioning her.  She does in twenty-three words what many modern authors need three chapters to set up. She also does this in a sentence that could be read as serious or sarcastic at the same time, depending on the reader’s point of view.

9. “The gunman is useless.” – I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

i am the messenger
Zusak is more commonly known for writing The Book Thief, but I am the Messenger deserves just as much praise. This line sets up a whole list of questions. Why is there a gunman? Who’s being held at gun point? What did they do? How do readers know the gunman is useless? Obviously, these questions need to be answered, so its best for readers to keep going. Like Austen, Zusak sets the tone for his novel right here. The situation is obviously a serious thing because a gunman is never not serious, but by saying he is useless creates a sense of the ridiculous, and this is what this novel as a whole is: a serious situation with a mildly ridiculous twist.

8. “The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath.” – An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

An Abundance of Katherines
“Who knows that many girls named Katherine, let alone dates that many and manages to get dumped by all of them?”is usually the first thought upon reading Katherines for the first time, and is enough to get people to keep going. Also, there’s a lot to take in here: the main character is a child prodigy, a character trait not often used; he obviously has some relationship issues because he’s been dumped by nineteen girls with the same name; and apparently his taking a bath is significant. Why? Is there a reason he took a bath instead of a shower? Instead of giving almost no information, like Zusak, Green gives a bunch of it, yet keeps it vague enough for readers to still wonder about what’s happening. Tone is once again established right away and readers can tell it’s going to be a light, silly novel because despite the dumping Colin has received, how can this be anything but silly when it opens with a boy in a bath who’s been dumped by nineteen girls with the same name?

7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

catcher in the rye
Both this book and this line are fantastic. It’s extremely impressive that so much of the character is revealed in just the first line. From the first sentence, this character is sarcastic and belligerent and isn’t even sure why he’s telling readers about any of this because why should he? This is what makes him interesting. Why, when he obviously doesn’t know himself, is he confiding in them? Why is he such an angry person? What’s happened to him that’s made him like this?Something obviously has or he wouldn’t bother with this explaining his story at all. Readers know right away that this character is opinionated, he’s got a ton of built-up angst, and he’s got something to prove. They also know that this is going to be a long journey because this kid is a rambler and is going to get distracted because of what’s inside his head. They know right away they are going to get to know this kid very well and they’re going to come out the other side of this book either loving him or hating him with no in-between. This is the sort of opening that makes an impression. This is the sort of opening someone is going to remember, for better or for worse, and that is exactly what makes this line great.

6. “Lana Nicarbith hummed of the number eleven.” – The Humming of Numbers by Joni Sensel

humming room
If a reader said they weren’t at least a little curious after reading that sentence, they would be lying. That’s what is awesome about this line; it makes people go “Did I just read that right?” It’s one of the most bizarre expressions ever written. How does one hum of the number eleven—or any number, really? There isn’t even an image that can be attached to it because no one has any clue what it means or how it could possibly work. This is how to hook a reader: give them a weird abstract concept and say nothing else about it; just keep going. This is how to do it because now they want to know. How the hell can someone hum of the number eleven? What does this mean? They need it to be explained. This isn’t a fancy sentence. It sounds inane enough that a seven-year-old might have written it because it’s not hard to imagine young kid saying “You hum like a five,”because that’s the way kids’imaginations work. However, even though this is a simple noun, verb, adjective sentence, it packs a surprise that makes people wonder “How?”

5. “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.” – The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

the gun seller
Yes, that is written correctly. Hugh Laurie, Doctor House, wrote a novel. Not only did he write a novel, but he wrote a spy novel, which is even better.  He also chose to start it with “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm,”which deserves a round of applause on principle alone. This is an excellent opening line because it catches readers off guard and poses a lot of questions, like Zusak’s. Why does the reader have to break someone’s arm? Why does the reader have to break someone’s arm? Is there no other option here? How did they get themselves into this situation? What has this other person done to deserve this? Did (s)he kill someone? Did the reader kill someone? There needs to be some answers, here. The reader’s attention has been grabbed; don’t lose it.

4. “At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.” – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

The dad’s a gangster? Okay, keep going. There is most definitely a theme of action or violent first lines in this list because usually they are not expected, based on the title (other than The Gun Seller, that shouldn’t be surprising at all), and because they’re typically funny. They’re thrown in so flippantly—“Oh, by the way my dad is a gangster.”“I’m being held at gun point, but it’s really no biggie.”“Breaking someone’s arm? No problem.”They’re also great because they make readers want to find out what’s happening and why these characters are going to have to be violent. In this case, what this vague business is that this guy’s gangster father is transacting. Is the main character a gangster, too? If not, why, or how did he escape that family business because aren’t gangsters’kids required to also be gangsters? Is this going to be dealing with hard drugs? Prostitutes? Illegal weapons operations? A combination of sketchy activities and sales? Openers that hint at potential violence always have a bunch of questions attached to them that need to be answered. Also, those who know anything about  Pittsburgh should know that the area has hardly ever had a gang or mob problem, which makes this even more curious because if the main character has gang ties, it’s probably going to be a big part of the novel. How is this going to play out?

3. “The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” – Paper Towns by John Green

This one is ranked so high because this is a feel-good sentence. It’s comforting, in a way. Even if someone is feeling down, the idea that everyone gets a miracle is uplifting. “Yeah, everyone gets one! I will, too!” It’s also nice because miracles are a versatile thing. They aren’t exclusively things like turning water into wine or getting a Hogwarts letter or even winning the lottery. Some people don’t want a big miracle. Some people just want a small one, like finally paying off their student loan debt or finding a roommate that will help them clean the apartment without being nagged about it. It’s nice to think that something amazing is going to happen, whether it’s big or small, and that’s why this line ranks at number three. It makes readers feel good, and it also makes them wonder how the narrator came to this conclusion, and what his miracle was, is, or will be.

2. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

This sentence is another feel-good sentence. Readers feel warm and cozy inside because when they hear it, because they know they’re going to hear about Bilbo Baggins and, next to Samwise Gamgee, Bilbo is the best character in the Lord of the Rings series, and, arguably, one of the best characters in all of literature. Bilbo is the every-man’s character; everyone can relate to him. Like most people, he dreamed of adventure when he was younger but as he grew older he began to enjoy his comfortable, uneventful life. However, when he is faced with a very real adventure, he becomes what everyone hopes to be in that situation. He’s clever and kind and brave and rises to every challenge that is put before him with remarkable fortitude, and unlike most main characters, he does not become corrupted by his tasks or rewards (at least, not in this book). People love Bilbo Baggins because not only is he endearing, but because they want to be just like him, and to have his story introduced in such a charming way makes people feel wonderful when they read it.  It’s another simple sentence. There aren’t any fancy words or flourish-y details (yet). It’s just a fact, but it makes people wonder what a hobbit is and why does he live in a hole? Surely there are nicer places to live. Why would anyone choose to live in a hole?  But really, this sentence is here because it is the sentence that started everything Lord of the Rings, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself.

1. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Speaking of sentences that started it all, this is the very beginning to the Harry Potter series and if that doesn’t deserve the number one spot on a list of best openers, then nothing does. This is the most iconic opening sentence in modern literature. Everyone knows about Harry Potter – as Rowling herself wrote at the end of this very chapter, “Every child in our world will know his name.” She could not have been more correct. Every person on the planet knows who, or what, Harry Potter is. They may not have read a single word of the series, or even seen one of the movies, but anyone over the age of seven will recognize the name, and this is the sentence that began it all. Other than the very obvious merits of starting the one of the most famous stories known to man, this sentence is a prime example of Rowling’s straightforward, slightly sassy, tone and style which many others have tried (and most times failed) to emulate. It also makes clear the pompousness and rudeness of the Dursleys, hinting right away that readers are not going to like this couple one bit. Not only that, but it also introduces the most famous address in Britain, other than 221B Baker Street, of course. Rowling should be proud to say that she has written a practically perfect opening sentence, thank you very much.

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