First Lines Are Important… Aren’t They?

See if you can guess the book from these five opening lines…

1. I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first in Hull.

2. Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing not alone for himself but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

3. Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

4. It was morning and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.

5. When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

The reason for all this is, I’m busy editing through the first chapter of my next book and have become a bit fixated by the opening line. I began to wonder about the importance of it in general and went to the shelf and pulled out a handful of classics, figuring that all of them would have a great one-liner to start the book off – because ALL great books have a great opener, don’t they?

Well, as it turns out, no… they don’t.

Check out Number 1… I almost fell asleep typing that one in, but it’s the kicker-off’r to Daniel Defoe’s masterwork Robinson Crusoe. Just as well the story picks up a bit…

Cover for Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Number 2: not your average pithy ice-breaker, but yet it does serve to tell you all is not well, and it does get you used to the style of the book. The long sentences, the frequent commas etc, and the assumption that here we have a dog who is so clever he could read the newspapers if he tried. The animal as highly intelligent being (just like man, or more so) connective that the writer goes in for. And yes, it is Call of the Wild by Jack London.


Number 3: Well, we know from this that we’re in space, and that those in space are concerned with appearance and ego, and that some places are cool to be in and others not. As it turns out, the next sentence tells us that this yellow sun is, in fact, our sun. We are living at the ‘unfashionable, uncharted backwater’ bit of the galaxy. Nicely done, but that was two sentences… It was, you may have guessed, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.


Number 4: a primary school-level yawnfest, this time courtesy of Richard Bach in Jonathan Livingston Seagull.


And then Number 5: short, sharp and to the point, yet from my least favourite book of the five. To be truthful, I’ve never got past the first couple of pages of this one. Apologies to The Hunger Games fans, and Suzanne Collins (not that she’d be bothered).


Anyway, my random test has generated some interesting results. I would venture that the more recent the book, the shorter the opener. Maybe there’s some kind of concerted focus on it nowadays, some kind of “I’m going to impress you with a first sentence that’ll want to make you read more” thing going on – because you need to grab people’s attentions quickly in the cut and thrust of 21st C writing.

In this ‘uncharted backwater’ it’s hard making a splash when everybody else is jumping into the pond.


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